Where are the drones?

The buzz around drone delivery is big right now. So why don’t we see any drone deliveries yet? Spoiler: it’s not because of the laws.

drone pizza delivery thinkstock
Credit: Thinkstock

While the Internet is abuzz with promises of delivering packages to your doorstep in half an hour from Amazon Prime Air, burritos “faster than you can say, ¡Salsa roja por favor! from Burrito Bomber and pizzas faster that you can say, “Just don’t add anchovies, cause I am allergiс” from DomiCopter, we still don’t see any actual drone delivery of anything. Anywhere.

It seems everyone is invested in fuelling the drone delivery buzz. Journalists spend time analyzing the promises and drafting think pieces about drone delivery. The public spends time watching setup drone delivery videos on YouTube. Haters and naysayers spend time penning acid comments on Twitter and Reddit. Enthusiasts spend brain energy on encouraging everyone to push forward. We see huge resources poured into the topic, but still no tacos parachuting down to our feet. Why is that and who’s to blame?

What is really keeping drones grounded?

If you ask Google those questions, you’ll get answers in headlines such as, FAA shoots down Amazon's drone delivery plans -- Commercial drones are completely illegal... – even, Putting drone videos on YouTube is illegal.... These stories will give you the impression that the only, or at least the most important, reason why we don’t see drones with packages cutting through the sky are law regulations and restrictions. It leaves you to imagine fleets of drones all set and ready to get off the ground, and it’s only the annoying red tape that keeps them grounded.

But let’s imagine that the red tape suddenly goes down. Tomorrow. Will we see commercial drones flying with packages all around at once?

“Of course, legal restrictions are a big challenge for businesses that are working on drone delivery projects now. But the most important reason why drone delivery hasn’t been realized anywhere yet is that drones now are not technologically ready to undertake commercial delivery,” says Lars Andersen, project leader and drone technology expert at Blue Ocean Robotics, the Danish company specializing in bringing early-stage technologies to businesses and markets.

“Most businesses envision relatively small and lightweight drones carrying out deliveries. But most such drones that are available on the market, have limited flight time and payload, and only the best of them are stable enough to handle rough weather conditions,” Andersen says.

The 3 drone categories

Basically, today’s drone market can be divided into 3 groups basing on technology and price. The first group are drones for hobby ranging in price around $1,000. These are mostly quadro/octocopters that stay up in the air for no more than 15 minutes and can be used for educational purposes or photography.

The second group are more technologically equipped drones with stabilizers, enhanced ground control systems, flight route preprogramming features and safety functions. These drones are used for inspection and surveillance tasks and aerial data collection. These can cost anywhere from $10,000 and higher depending on the particular application case. Such drones are still manipulated from the ground and fly no longer than 20 minutes.

And there is a third class of highly expensive Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) like Phantom Eye from Boeing with a wingspan of 46 meters or Global Hawk from Northrop Grumman with a price of $218 million apiece. Those drones can fly autonomously out of sight for a long time and withstand severe weather conditions, but you don’t picture your pizza brought to you by a small plane, do you?

Technology is keeping drone delivery from being a reality, right now

Essentially, the drones that could possibly carry out delivery tasks are not technologically apt to do it yet. The drones that are technologically capable of doing it now are far from being small and affordable UAVs that people will not be afraid to see above their heads. The industry still hasn’t produced a reliable product where the cost meets the desired quality. And this is very important, since the drone delivery idea is first of all aimed at reducing the cost of deliveries.

So legal regulations and restrictions are not the root of the problem. They represent the universally accepted answer to the state of things that we now have. In addition, the emerging status of technology is not the only symptom of the immaturity of drone delivery efforts. Deliveries in high population density areas (skyscrapers, high voltage wires), deliveries “straight off to your porch” (what if I live in an apartment building on the 20th floor?), responsibility for the drone damage (even if you have a porch, you might as well have a fun-loving dog, or a child playing outside) - all these areas are still untackled, undecided and raw.

Does it mean that we should stop shaking the air with discussions, opinions and complaints about drone delivery? Not at all. It’s how ideas mature after all. The more promising-and-not-delivering drone delivery videos companies produce, the more we wrangle about them. We hit the topic, we draw attention to it, we stress its importance. Experts, decision makers and regulators are drawn into this whirlpool. When the concept is ripe, it becomes reality.

Drone delivery is sure to change the world, as it’s not only about pizza being delivered faster, it’s about bringing packages to remote places, it’s about making inspection and surveillance jobs safer, it’s about medical treatment reaching the patient before it’s too late. So let’s keep the fire under the burning discourse that one day soon you can get that burrito delivered by a small quadrocopter.

This story, "Where are the drones?" was originally published by CIO.

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