Delivery drones: Where are they when we really need them?

Amazon promised. Google trialled. UPS got a licence. But only 1% of retailers are interested because they're still mostly rubbish

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More than a billion people are in coronavirus-inspired lockdown and even going out to shop for essentials increases the risk of the virus spreading.

So where are the delivery drones that swoop in with our shopping, to let us practice social distancing while also enjoying a life of louche, on-demand luxury?

We've been promised they're coming. Amazon revealed its Prime Air drones way back in 2013. Alphabet trialled its Wing delivery drones as recently as March 2019. Airbus buzzed some around Singapore last year too to transport parts to ships 1.5km from shore.

So where are they in our hour of need?

A few are in service. Wing told us that it has drones flying in four locations around the world: Two in Australia, one each in the USA and Finland. In the USA Wing has partnered with FedEx and giant drugstore chain Walgreens, which is a great pair of names to attach to any transport innovation.

However Wing couldn't tell us how many drones it has in its working fleet. We were told "hundreds" of homes are capable of receiving Wing deliveries in Australia. But payloads must be under 3.3 pounds (1.5kg). Wing told us it has delivered bread and milk from local retailers, but mostly sees its service as best-suited for small items you need in a hurry, such as medicine.

Most delivery drones are in labs where boffins are trying out tech that will make them less rubbish.

"Automating a drone to fly from Point A to B in a GPS-available situation is quite a mature technology nowadays," said Dr Wang Fei, an adjunct lecturer at the National University of Singapore's Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Faculty of Engineering.

But Dr Wang said broader drone delivery efforts are "still at proof-of-concept" stage.

Among the problems to be solved are the ability to carry useful payloads.

"The biggest challenge is the payload because the efficiency just isn't there," said Thomas O'Connor, a senior director of analyst firm Gartner's Supply Chain Industries and Programs team.

O'Connor recently surveyed global retailers about their intention to adopt drones: a mere 1 per cent said they're on a near-term road map.

It's not hard to see why. Wing's craft can't carry a two litre bottle of milk, although it has still secured at least two local grocery partners in Australia.

Australian residents also hated one Wing experiment. Noise complaints abounded and prematurely ended the tests.

Noise problems are among the other barriers to delivery drones identified in a January 2020 article in Building and Environment, the international journal of building science and its applications.

Penned by researchers from the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Team at Australia's RMIT University, Swinburne University, and Boeing, the article identifies problems facing would-be urban drone operators including:

  • Requirement for line-of-sight radio comms can't be satisfied by cellular networks, although some current drone trials work without line-of-sight comms;
  • Absence of social licence amid fears drones pose safety risks and could cost jobs;
  • Urban environments creating challenging flying conditions that don't help with safety;
  • Privacy implications of camera-carrying drones;
  • Drones have poor endurance that limits range and necessitates frequent battery replacement;
  • Regulations are mostly nascent.

Yet the article still concludes that delivery drones will one day become viable, perhaps once we build a drone-friendly world for them to inhabit.

"Ground-based delivery is enabled by roads and pavements, which may need to be emulated in a form of 'air lanes' for airborne delivery," the authors suggest. "There are also trends towards reduction of poles and wires for communication and power delivery (e.g. wireless communication and solar power generation). Futurist predict that the existing methods of moving people in tall buildings becomes untenable for buildings greater than a kilometre height and suggest that cars of the future will include vehicles that travel up and down the outsides of such buildings. This raises the possibility that people might be delivered by large drones.

"Dense, tall, cities could offer advantages for a drone delivery that could land on the roofs of such buildings or perhaps deliver to each level or apartment, as opposed to street level delivery. This potential advantage has already led to architects taking such factors into consideration, with dedicated docking or landing stations being considered at several levels."

Gartner's O'Connor said the work to make drones better is under way. "The increments are happening," he told The Register, pointing to UPS winning a licence to operate a drone airline in the USA as one example of an organisation working to improve drone technology.

UPS wants to ship medicines to hospitals or rural areas. Which will be handy, but not what we need right now: weekly loads of groceries of family doorsteps.

O'Connor could't say when that will be possible. But he noted recent experiments by giant Chinese retailer JD.com, some aimed at drug delivery to homes. He also cited the firm's research, based on retailer feedback, suggesting 70 percent compound annual growth rate in drone operation by retailers.

The resulting fleet will be 1.9 million strong by the year 2028.

The National University of Singapore's Dr Wang offered a similar prediction.

"I am looking forward to the widespread of this in 10 years’ time, but some niche markets like delivering of offshore goods and delivering of critical medicines may be fully deployable in 5 years’ time," he told The Register. ®

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