Is Drone Delivery Going To Become a “Thing”?

On June 5th, 2013, Domino’s UK delivered two delicious pizzas to someone using a drone. Not much later, Amazon decided to announce its plans to introduce drone deliveries for packages weighing lower than 5 pounds. Governments, competitors, and consumers all over the world now have their eyes on the prospect of drone deliveries, and what their future might hold. What are we going to see? Are there privacy implications? What countries will be the first to allow such adoptions? Why is permission even needed? As always, we’ll dive into these questions and answer them!

I mean, we have cars, right?

dronedelivery-ups

Well, it seems that the answer to this question is actually pretty easy! Have you thought about how much a company has to pay for maintaining a vehicle that’s delivering light-weight products? You have to pay for car insurance, fuel, regular oil changes, check-ups by a mechanic, tolls, taxes, inter-district road usage permits (in some countries, like Romania and others in Eastern Europe), and many other expenses that regular people may not pay for as often as you do.

With a drone, you eliminate a lot of this overhead, and end up with a very low-maintenance lightweight device that’s fuel-efficient and able to get somewhere fast by flying a direct route, as opposed to driving a winding route to get form point A to point B. With a quick dispatch of a hundred drones, you kill two birds with one stone: You offer the customer convenience, and you get to cut costs.

dronedelivery-future

Drone technology has to advance a little bit before we see anything more impressive than the equivalent of an RC helicopter army. However, only with investment can we make that happen. This means that we must allow businesses the freedom to invest in this technology and use it extensively before we see a significant demand for higher-end delivery hardware. Eventually, we may end up with very affordable drones that fly to their destinations automatically with one remote command.

Before we talk about the obstacles to drone delivery, we need to discuss what concerns we may have about this new idea. First of all, there’s the worry that they could be used to clandestinely spy on you. The answer to this is “so can people in cars, and that’s actually somewhat easier to get away with.”

But there’s another concern, one which is very difficult to dismount. What if someone shoots (or hacks, or somehow brings down) the drone that is supposed to deliver your package? They can just run away with the item, no consequences. This question still remains to be answered. However, in all likelihood, companies will find a way to deal with the problem, since sending over a replacement is also costly for them. Yes, that’s the best answer I can give you for now. It’s just too early to speculate on what could solve the problem. My guess is that there would be some sort of failsafe that keeps the device flying even after it’s been damaged. As for hacking, the remote radio can shut off while cruising and dial home when it’s delivered a package. That would prevent a lot of incidents.

dronedelivery-regulation

The primary roadblock to drone deliveries is regulation. No shooter or thief will hurt the prospect of having drones deliver our goods more than the men and women holding the pens that can make it very difficult.

China looks like it’s hopping on the bandwagon rather quickly. Other than that, we’re seeing signs of life from the UK and the US, although both countries suffer a bit from heavy bureaucracies (with the UK, of course, seeing less of a problem with commercial delivery drones in their skies). We’ll likely see quicker adoption (if there’s demand) in Singapore and Hong Kong, two countries where the legal environment is a perfect breeding ground for awesome ideas like these to flourish.

My take on this is that you can’t expect drone deliveries to become a “thing” too soon. It might take until the year 2015 or even later for us to start seeing a healthy market penetration of this type of innovation. After all, there are many markets (like the smartphone market) today that were basically niche markets back in 2006.

Just keep waiting patiently and the moment will come when your packages will come in pristine condition at your doorstep, delivered by a little flying machine.

17 comments

  1. Besides the whole “shoot down” thing what happens when 2 collide mid air and come crashing down to earth? I see a lawsuit brewing …

    • I’d see a problem with that indeed. Although, I’m pretty sure that collisions can be avoided with a couple of safety measures. It’s really simple to avoid collisions using the hardware available to us today.

  2. Delivery times could be staggered by city, flights to at even altitudes, flights from at odd altitudes…, RFID’s for realtime tracking, seems fairly plausible to me…

    • Flight pattern analysis will help these companies make deliveries on time. My concern is wind and other weather.

  3. Yes a delivery van has a lot of overheads, not least of which is the cost of the driver. But your average drone can only carry one parcel.
    This whole idea has to be something of an April Fools…. errand.

    • The cost of one car (the big one that usually delivers packages) can cover the cost of 40-60 small low-maintenance drones. I don’t see how this wouldn’t become a distinct possibility in the future. For now, there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area.

  4. What if you’re not home? Will drop you package in your front yard. I don’t see one of these making it all the way up to you front porch. :-)

    • It’s actually easy for internal software to detect the difference between different materials, and locate the front door of a house. I think it’s highly plausible.

  5. Drones MAY provide a short term relief from some of the overhead costs of human operated vehicles but rest assured, the state and federal governments will pass legislation to close those loopholes and reclaim lost revenue (regardless of if it is truly due them or not) so fast it will make your head spin. And you can also rest assured that there will be no real savings on insurance either… maybe just a shifting of cost from Auto to Corp liability insurance “buckets”. No… the only real long term benefits of drone delivery is reduced delivery cycle-time and no doubt some level of workforce reduction (i.e. machines replacing people).

    • Yes, it would be a shame if a firm tries to reduce capex and opex by switching to an otherwise feasible method of delivery, only to be barred by legislation from doing so in a cost-effective manner. This is very foreseeable in the US, but we’ll probably see these technologies in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan spring up like mushrooms after the rain.

  6. and how will countries discern between friendly and non-friendly drone traffic? We (the US) has enough issues managing (doling out) cellular signal ‘ranges’. How will they manage/oversee flight patterns, altitudes, etc of these pesky marvels?

    • It’s safe to assume that a one-square-foot drone flying at 20-60 km/h and emitting very low heat signatures doesn’t pose any threat.

      Frequency spectrum distribution is very far from being comparable to the use of ample airspace. I’m sure that companies have more of an incentive to keep track of their devices and prevent them from getting damaged than the state does. They also would like to stay away from liabilities.

      • “It’s safe to assume that a one-square-foot drone flying at 20-60 km/h and emitting very low heat signatures doesn’t pose any threat.”
        Really?! How many kilograms of RDX can a drone like that carry? How about anthrax or some other Cat 5 biological agent? Still think drones are harmless?

        BTW – do you know what they say about the word “assume”?

  7. Beam me up a tribble pizza!
    And fire a few more median wage workers
    and hire two more overpaid entitled geeks
    at the Amazon-FedEx-Google Palo Altos Campus

  8. Back again. I’m still of the opinion that this is all a pipe dream for home deliveries. However I could see a role for drones delivering goods to major distribution HUBs for onward delivery by a guy in a van. There are simply too many possible negatives to receiving packages at home by drone. Let the next 5 years determine who is right shall we?

    • Absolutely! I must concede that your arguments are strong. However, I can see the private sector try to push this technology to the point that it will be feasible. What I don’t see clearly right now is the possibility of success. I’m of the opinion that it is too difficult to tell at this point whether such technology will actually gain ground in the future.

      I mean, look at the prospect of VR (virtual reality). Everyone was spazzed out about it, talking about how it was a new era for gaming. There was a point when proponents of VR were no longer taken seriously. However, decades later, we are seeing a comeback with augmented reality (Google Glass, for example) and other forms of immersive technologies that might turn into something that the people developing VR back in the 90s have never dreamed of.

      We’ll just have to wait and see. There are so many possibilities you and I have yet to encounter, and they will come if we are careful enough to provide a good breeding ground for ideas. The way I see it, the environment is far from optimal in Western nations, as opposed to how it was back in the 60s and 70s. Of course, one of the saving graces of this day and age is the fact that the internet and technology (in general) are moving too fast to be regulated (for now).

  9. Well, the companies are saving money. But nobody thinks about all the employees who are losing their jobs.
    And again our unemployment-rate is raising just to make human life even easier…

    Well done…

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