Retail drone delivery seems to have been on the cards for years now. But how realistic is the prospect of drones flying autonomously through the sky and dropping off parcels direct to your doorstep?
We’re not so sure. Here are 6 reasons why Drone Delivery is total BS.
1. ‘The Last Mile’
One of the biggest challenges facing mainstream drone delivery is the delivery itself. Sure, you’ve managed to attach a package to a drone and fly it to its destination. But now what?
How do you stop people from interfering with the drone and its package? How do you make sure the drone is able to deal with unexpected scenarios? How exactly does the package get from the drone to your doorstep?
It seems inevitable that pets and people will interfere with drone deliveries, deliberately and by accident. These are problems of ‘the last mile’.
And they are fundamental questions that drone delivery advocates still need to answer. So far, Amazon has been granted patents for some kind of parachute system. But we have no idea whether that remains a concept or has become reality.
And while a parachute is all well and good, it brings another level of complexity to drone delivery. Where will the parachute be dropped? How accurate will that drop be?
Central to all of these questions is…
2. A lack of infrastructure
There’s truth to the statement that drone technology is advanced enough to perform accurate deliveries. They can fly with payloads; obstacle avoidance is developing, BVLOS testing is underway; combined GPS and visual positioning systems are becoming common in the consumer market.
But even if all of those technologies are perfected, the problem of ‘the last mile’ requires concrete solutions in the form of infrastructure.
To avoid potential interference, it’s likely that a serious amount of investment and thought needs to go into infrastructure. This might include landing pads, delivery stations in back yards, or a new style of post box that sits high enough off the ground to ensure that people, pets and parcels will never be put at risk during delivery.
In short, there are more questions than answers, especially when we’re talking about urban drone deliveries.
This lack of infrastructure isn’t only limited to delivery points. Presumably, companies looking to pioneer drone delivery, such as Amazon, will need to build a huge network of drone delivery stations around the country.
3. Legal issues
One issue that comes up again and again whenever drones are concerned is privacy. People don’t tend to like it when drones fly unannounced over their property. A drone delivery network would almost certainly require this to happen on a regular basis.
The privacy issue isn’t going to go away. It could take years for people to come to terms with drone delivery being the ‘new normal’. On top of that, delivery drones will no doubt be gathering data as they fly. Who owns that information?
Aside from privacy, there’s liability. If a delivery drone crashes through your window, who’s responsible? The person down the street who ordered the parcel, the company controlling the drones or someone else?
These key legal issues need to be resolved before drone delivery can become a reality.
4. How useful would drone deliveries be, anyway?
We know that drone deliveries could free up space on the roads and carry out missions faster than the average postman. But does that assumption take flight times into account? Today’s drones – at least at the top end of the consumer market – struggle to stay in the air for longer than half an hour.
So how much range does that give our drone delivery system? If we say that the drone is capable of 30mph and has a 30 minute flight time, it can travel about 15 miles in that time. Cut that distance in half to ensure that the drone can fly back to its starting point and you’ve got a range of 7.5 miles.
That is, of course, assuming that the drone can’t stop off and charge up at a different station after the delivery, which takes us back to point 2.
With all of that in mind, it starts to seem as though drone delivery is an exciting, but ultimately not a very feasible idea.
5. More hype than substance
There are times you wonder whether the hype over drone delivery is simply easy publicity for companies like Amazon. Every time there’s a new development, whether it’s an obscure patent being granted or a test site opened, media outlets lap it up.
And who can blame either party? People want to read about drone technology and are excited about where it’s headed. While companies are willing to take advantage of that interest and use the promise of drone tech to market their other services.
Admittedly, Amazon Prime Air does appear to be making progress. The video above, highlighting delivery trials in Cambridge, England, shows that much. But we still seem to be a long way off the Amazon Prime Air service that has been promoted over the years.
Back in 2013 the company confirmed that its drone delivery would be underway as early as 2015, but things have progressed a lot slower than expected. Could this be because while the concept is brilliant, concerns over infrastructure, feasibility, privacy, safety and necessity are all slowing the process down?
Pizza chain Domino’s is another example of drone delivery being used for PR over substance. Sure, the company delivered a pizza using a drone. But is this a genuine game-changer in food delivery or just another example of easy marketing?
6. Drone Traffic Control & Regulations
The biggest challenge to mainstream drone delivery is regulations. In the US at the moment several FAA restrictions are in place. Commercial pilots – the label under which drone delivery services would presumably have to operate – are not currently allowed to fly drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) or control more than one drone at a time.
BVLOS flights are taking place with a handful of commercial partners, but the FAA will need to see a huge amount of evidence before they give the okay to drone delivery networks.
The challenge of air traffic control is another that faces mainstream drone delivery. How do you keep track of and control hundreds of drones going about their own autonomous delivery missions? And how do all of these drones fit into an airspace that’s already busy with commercial aircraft?
Currently the FAA is working with NASA and a number of other partners to develop and test a drone traffic control system that can be rolled out at a national level. Until that system has been perfected, there’ll be no mainstream drone deliveries.
Exceptions to the rule
It’s easy to say that mainstream drone deliveries won’t be dropping packages to a doorstep near you. But progress is being made. The main problems we’ve mentioned above are to do with regulations, infrastructure and potential interference in urban areas.
With that in mind it’s no surprise that specialized drone delivery systems are popping up around the world where they are genuinely needed, not where their presence is simply a luxury. One example of this is Silicon Valley startup Zipline, which is currently delivering medical supplies via drone across Rwanda, Africa.
The obvious difference here is that local regulations take a backseat while lives are being saved. And the rural nature of the country means that deliveries aren’t affected by the problems of ‘the last mile’.
Zipline has proved that drone deliveries are both possible and necessary. But it’s a huge jump to assume that the same can be done or will ever be accepted for retailers. Medical supplies are one thing. There are still plenty of hurdles for ambitious delivery companies to overcome if all that’s being delivered is the latest DVD or a pepperoni pizza.