The return of (drone) robot wars: Beware of low-flying freezers

A dalek asks: 'Wanna buy some speakers?'

Something for the Weekend, Sir? There was a time when I used to spend my free hours looking for a man.

Oh yes, many a day I’d hang about aimlessly for hours, just waiting for the right man to turn up. Sometimes I’d look for a man in uniform, other times he’d in civvies, but all I wanted was the kind of man who would – well, how can I put this? – “deliver the goods”.

Usually these hours were between 8am and 12 noon.

More often than not, no man would turn up. Instead, much later in the day, I would discover on my doormat a printed postcard card bearing a childishly handwritten note to inform me that because I was out, my package had been left behind the bins.

It’s a relief not having to wait around for parcel delivery men any more. Robot couriers put an end to all that nonsense, didn’t they?

Cast your mind back in time to the year 2016 when the whole robot courier thing kicked off.

The world’s biggest mail-order operation and arch tax-avoider Amazon had for years been talking about the possibility of making deliveries by drone to households but had failed to – heh – get very far. The basic technology was in place but Amazon HQ was having trouble persuading the authorities to let them run real-world trials.

This, you may remember, was because Americans have an aversion to remote-controlled airborne cameras hovering over their back gardens while their kids are splashing around in the pool.

The authorities felt that while it might have been amusing to watch Amazon waste millions of its dollars on what would turn out to be effectively a fleet of robotic clay pigeons, they did not want citizens to blast drones out of the sky when legally they ought to be using their firearms to kill each other, in accordance with the Constitution.

So Amazon realised it had better run trials in the UK – a country where gun ownership is tightly restricted and its citizens are happy and willing to have every fucking second of their private lives filmed because they already live in a corrupt police state with the Big Brother-like cosh of closed-circuit TV on every street corner.

As expected, all that was needed to attain the regulatory green light was to assure the UK government that the drones would not veer into commercial or military airspace. Any concern that a malfunctioning tax-dodging drone might drop on the head of a tax-paying suburbanite was deemed irrelevant: these drones have parachutes, right?

No, what mattered to the government agencies was that drones should not interfere with the smooth running of the mainstream aerospace industries, in which various politicians and many voters have a financial interest. Besides, if something’s going to smash through your loft conversion skylight, better that it’s a drone than an Airlander 10.

Other considerations, such as the incessant buzzing noise, darkened skies of gigantic robotic bats and the negative impact on house prices for home owners unfortunate enough to live under the narrow drone delivery corridor, were naturally dismissed as nimbyism.

If you remember, the success of the Amazon trial quickly caught the imagination of the whole courier industry. But as you are well aware, not all delivery drones are airborne. The same year, 2016, saw European trials of street-level robot delivery vehicles such as the the Starship.

This was a cute little six-wheeled safe-box about knee-high that was designed to trundle along pavements with its 12kg payload locked inside. Upon reaching its destination, a customer could unlock it with a smartphone app and let the little bugger make its own way back to the distribution centre.

I myself was so impressed by the way in which its developers dubbed its beer fridge on wheels “Starship” that I renamed my clapped-out family car “Crossdimensional Roadster”.

You must agree, it was a fantastic innovation in transport: autonomous package delivery vehicles took all that annoying and unnecessary courier traffic off our streets – and put it on our pavements instead.

Younger readers of this column may be surprised to hear that there used to be a time when pedestrians were able to use the pavements as well. In fact, people back in 2016 would walk on these pavements quite frequently and were only required to share them with abusive cyclists, obese women in mobility vehicles, parked lorries and scaffolding.

Now, of course, with the addition of courier traffic, there is no room left for humans travelling on foot, which is why we stagger around in the gutter instead, trying to avoid getting clipped by buses, cocaine-snorting Russian gangsters whizzing by in their BMWs, and the occasional dodgy white drone van offering to sell me some speakers for 0.0005 bitcoin (about £42bn).

No matter, it’s the price of progress. Ordering goods over the internet and having them delivered by robot has changed my life. No more having to wait as a single van on the same delivery route makes its way to 100 other customers in turn: now I get personal direct-to-the-door service!

Sure, my drone has to fight its way past the 100 other drones clogging up the same delivery route but it’s a technological revolution, isn’t it?

Best of all, no more waiting around for a stupid delivery man who never turns up!

Anyway, you must excuse me as I have to dash off. I promised I’d help my neighbour dig two fridge freezers out of his front lawn.

The first one landed on Tuesday afternoon when a heli-drone accidentally dropped its payload en route, and we suspect the customer ordered a replacement when it failed to arrive at the designated delivery address.

The replacement landed three feet from the first on Wednesday morning.

My neighbour called the mail order company to complain. They told him to fix the return sticker and pop the goods back in the post, hence the need to dig: the return details are sealed in a bag on the underside.

Before that, I am still expecting my own delivery of goods shortly so I must go back outside now to hold up an A4 printout of the appropriate QR code so the drone can find me.

In the past, I used to leave the QR code on the grass and wait indoors, knowing that I’d be alerted to the drone’s arrival by a blood-curdling screech as its eight spinning razor-like rotors shredded the cat. Unfortunately, after the first dozen cats, the rescue centre refused to let me have any more.

So, outside I go to wait in person. This drone should have been here three hours ago but perhaps it flew overhead those two minutes when I nipped indoors to have a wee.

Still, they promised it would be here. I’ll just wait outside for another couple of hours.

It’s a shame it’s raining. ®

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He looks forward to being able to give a delivery location that is not a front door with a postcode. In the brave new world of autonomous delivery vehicles, we ought to be able to get our goods delivered to a street corner, a bench in a park or to a table in a cafe. That, at least, would be progress.


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