Can drones take off as a delivery service?

Long seen as a potential delivery system, drones have been enjoying renewed attention during the pandemic – though obstacles remain.

During the first lockdown period, Britons made an estimated 80m extra food shops online. It’s easy to see why — with tighter lockdown measures and fears around contracting the virus in physical stores. However, the method for delivering products to our homes has been been slower to adapt.

Apart from a rise in letterbox-size products and packaging, most goods are still delivered in person and transported by vehicles. Each year, Royal Mail delivers around 1.8bn parcels and in 2019, Amazon recorded around 3.5bn deliveries, which not only has a significant impact on the environment but also high running costs.

Some companies seem to be betting on drones as a possibility for more efficient deliveries. In America, Amazon and United States Postal Service (USPS), have been trialling drones for deliveries though are yet to launch services. More concrete plans have been put into place, however. In September, drone company Zipline and retailer Walmart announced a partnership to launch deliveries of health supplies via drone in 2021. Common benefits listed include greener delivery systems, faster delivery times and lower long-term costs.

A delivery system for socially-distanced times

While interest in drone-based deliveries has been bubbling away for a while, 2020 has brought it into focus again. The pandemic has made drone-based delivery much more appealing to customers and companies alike, thanks to the limited human contact.

In response to COVID-19, Iceland-based drone company Flytrex launched a delivery service in the town of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Flytrex CEO and co-founder Yariv Bash tells Design Week that the initiative sought to provide necessities such as food, medicine and essential goods to households while observing social distancing recommendations.

Goods are packed up at a centre, sent out to a household and lowered on a wire into gardens. “It helped address the growing health crisis by keeping citizens in the safety of their own homes and reduces crowding and unnecessary contact at local stores,” Bash adds. He says that people have liked “avoiding unnecessary interaction” at stores and the “swift, efficient and environmentally-friendly deliveries”.

Its COVID-19 response was a partnership between drone pilot company Ease Drones, the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation and a governmental body from the City of Grand Forks. This gives some idea of the complexity of putting these systems into place — while there are clear benefits to drone deliveries, there are just as many challenges. “It still may be some time until drone delivery becomes an industry standard,” Bash admits.

Where can drones deliver to?

Flytrex originally launched to deliver hot food to suburban areas in Iceland, which have been “traditionally underserved”. Owing to their geography, it has not always been easy to deliver to homes through traditional transport routes. The drones can send out deliveries in under four minutes, which is important for hot products.

Since launching in 2018, Flytrex has made over a thousand flights in partnership with Iceland’s largest online retailer Aha. It claims that it has “substantially increased [Aha’s] daily delivery capacity without additional labour cost”.

Similar companies have cropped up in the UK. Manna, which has offices in both Wales and Ireland, aims to make “three-minute air delivery a reality” by delivering food from restaurants to homes. It says that by reducing travel time, it can “greatly improve the consumer experience” as well as “saving lives” by taking “road-based delivery into the skies”.

The company recently announced a partnership with Tesco to deliver goods directly to people’s doors and earlier in the year, it partnered with delivery service Just Eat to deliver takeaway.

However, Flytrex delivers food to customers’ gardens, which is only possible if you have a back garden to begin with. Bash says that the “natural next step” is to serve urban areas as well. “It’s just a matter of achieving the right regulations by creating standards that ensure efficiency and safety.”

The “right regulations” are a particular challenge for drone services in terms of the law. Drones pose problems for people’s safety on the ground below as well as safety with other aircraft in the sky. And in the UK for example, it is illegal to fly drones in public areas unless it is specially-designated place.

Understandably, there are also privacy concerns about devices that can fly over private land and collect information. High-profile incidents — like when the military had to intercept a drone crisis at Gatwick airport at Christmas in 2018 — have not helped drones’ public image.

“The need for drone delivery is going to grow”

Collecting COVID samples in Ghana

It means that drone companies face an uphill battle when launching their services. Earlier this year, Zipline launched in North Carolina to deliver health supplies. It is making the “longest range, autonomous deliveries ever approved by the Federal Aviation Administration”.

There has been a clear focus on safety and reassurance. Zipline says that it has “direct communication” with aviation authorities so that the drones can be tracked at all times. The planes have in-built “redundant systems” — if one motor stops working, there’s a back-up. There are also back-ups for the communication and navigation systems.

Zipline spokesman Justin Hamilton tells Design Week that these deliveries are over “populated, urban and suburban residential areas and in actively-managed commercial airspace”. Meanwhile, the pandemic has also provided the company with experience of foreign cities. In Ghana, Zipline has been collecting COVID-19 samples from thousands of rural health facilities in the country’s largest cities for processing.

“One thing has become abundantly clear over the course of the pandemic: suddenly a much larger universe of countries, companies, and people understand the benefit of using contactless drones to make deliveries,” Hamilton says.

One of those companies is Walmart. Next year, Zipline is set to deliver heath and wellness products from the retail stores near Walmart’s headquarters in Northwest Arkansas. It will serve a 50 mile (around 80km) radius from store location (an area equivalent to the state of Connecticut).

Hamilton says that the company’s focus is likely to grow. And one potential way around difficult regulation might be to apply a successful company’s framework more widely. “We’re probably not going to see one drone delivery service for medicine and another for everything else,” he adds.

He is also optimistic about the public’s perception around drones — no doubt helped by the wave of COVID responses. “Attitudes and opinions we thought might take several years to evolve have instead done so over just a few short weeks and months,” Hamilton says. “So the need for drone delivery is going to grow.”

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  • Neil Littman October 13, 2020 at 11:04 am

    I am not sure if the advantages outweigh the risks. There have been a total of five deaths involving so called fail-proof driverless cars. What if the drone is overloaded and drops the package etc. Then there is the issue of surveillance and privacy. In remote rural communities I can see the appeal but in urban areas the is much more at stake. Will Greggs be sending me my coffee and vegan sausage roll by drone? It all sounds like Minority Report has arrived.

  • Neil Littman October 13, 2020 at 11:06 am

    I forgot to add that I was very impressed by the story in DW last year about drones being used to drop medication and essential supplies in parts of Africa that are difficult to reach with conventional modes of transport. Humanitarian aid seems a better use of this technology than our online purchases.

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