Droning on: the challenges facing drone delivery

by Nicole Kobie

Drones have a lot of hurdles to whirr over before they’re dropping last-minute Amazon deliveries or breakfast burritos on our doorsteps.

Droning on: the challenges facing drone delivery

Google, DHL and Amazon are all trialling drone deliveries, while startups such as Matternet and Zipline are already dropping packages in developing countries and remote areas. But while a sizeable heap of money and effort is being chucked at airborne pizza takeaways and other urgent deliveries, these companies have to contend with a shifting set of practical and legal barriers.

From calculating where to drop packages, to preventing systems being hijacked by hackers, the course of semi-autonomous payload delivery never did run smooth.

Making the drop

Perhaps the biggest question with drone delivery is dropping off the package. Forget the “last mile” of delivery, it’s now the “last 50 feet”.

The good news is that drone deliveries work, for the most part. DHL’s demo Parcelcopter failed because of poor weather, but storms aside, the technology is sound. Amazon’s Prime Air can carry 2kg – which accounts for 90% of the retailer’s packages – and rival systems can easily do the same, completely autonomously. Another technical challenge is air-traffic control, but NASA’s been on the case since 2013 and is working on a project with Verizon to manage drones in-flight from phone cellular towers.

So flight is the easy part. Dropping off the package is the problem.

At the moment, deliveries by humans are already often left unattended on the doorstep or rammed, for added protection, into the front hedge. What happens if a drone drops a box into a backyard with a pet dog? Who’s at fault if Fido chews up your air-delivered new shoes? And what if your new clogs clocked your dog in the skull?amazon_prime_air

“The best experience for the customer is their package gracefully drifting down from the sky and landing right where they want it,” Ryan Oksenhorn, Zipline co-founder, told me. “To do this, we needed to engineer solutions to quite a few hard problems.”

That includes wind, which makes hitting a tiny target difficult. Each Zip drone surveys the local conditions before releasing the package via a specially designed parachute. “The Zip passes by quietly, releasing your order from a safe height, with the wind delivering it straight to your feet,” Oksenhorn said.

Project Wing hovers in the air while it lowers the package – a Chipotle burrito – onto a target.

Zipline’s self-described “elegant” parachutes are one potential solution, but delivery developers have come up with other ideas. In its trial at Virginia Tech, Alphabet’s Project Wing hovers in the air while it lowers the package – a Chipotle burrito – onto a target via a cord. However, it does this in the middle of a desolate field, not a busy suburb.

Others address the issue by creating special landing zones. Amazon has filed a patent to use street lamps for drone delivery stations, while DHL’s Parcelcopter will drop packages at a “smart locker” and send recipients a code to unlock it. Such smart lockers mean DHL’s drones won’t offer service to your door, but they could be built into the top of apartment buildings one day – or even use your smart car for delivery.

The German company is this year trialling package delivery by human couriers to Daimler Smart cars, while Matternet has developed a van-top landing pad so drones can autonomously land and take off. This could help get a missing component to a worksite or the right blood type to an ambulance in a remote area, or simply hand your Amazon delivery to a human to put on your doorstep.starship_technologies_ground_drone_1

Starship Technologies’ smart wheeled delivery robots don’t have the landing issue – the robots are already on the ground, after all – but during their trial with Just Eat they were still walked to the front door by a human when delivering a takeaway, so that they wouldn’t alarm the recipient.

“During the duration of this [trial] programme, we still have people walking with the robot,” co-founder Ahti Heinla told me, saying it helps avoid any unpleasant surprises – or someone calling in a bomb threat. “If anyone would have any problem with the robot, the person walking with the robot could help… but people in London who have actually their deliveries done with the robot are generally very pleasantly surprised. They call it cute.”

Keeping it legal

The second big challenge is regulation, and as ever the law trails innovation.

You can’t just chuck an unmanned drone up in the air with a 2kg payload and call it a day – you need regulatory approval first. That’s less of a challenge in the UK than in the US, as our government has decided to be forward-thinking about drone deliveries (we’re as surprised as you) and is keen to encourage their development by offering up British skies for trials.

That’s been to the irritation of Cambridgeshire locals, where Amazon is testing drones. There have been “absolutely horrified” complaints about the potential noise and damage to a Roman road – which has lasted thousands of years and will probably survive Prime Air.

Amazon has permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for such trials, and that’s all it needs. To get that, companies need to show that they won’t endanger people or property, says Claire Temple, associate director in Osborne Clarke’s commercial and regulatory disputes. They will likely also need to get an exemption on requirements they be flown at line of sight, below 400ft in altitude, and away from crowded areas, as deliveries won’t work without allowing each of those.


Practically that means that retailers must prove to the CAA that delivery by drone is incredibly safe,” she said. “The more interesting question is perhaps whether or not the CAA is going to grant permission. Historically, there has been understandable nervousness around allowing drones increased access to UK airspace – primarily due to concerns around safety. However, the UK is now keen to be seen as an enabler of cutting-edge innovation by leading the way on safe integration of drones into everyday aviation.”

That’s much laxer than across the Atlantic. “In August this year, there was a big fanfare in the US around a revision to the rules applicable to commercial use of drones, which was intended to make clearer what is acceptable commercial usage of drones,” she added. “However, the revised rules don’t make any concessions which would really make it any easier for businesses to offer delivery by drone – that is because, amongst other things, drones must still be operated within line of sight. The general perception is therefore that the UK is stealing a march on the US in terms of regulating in such a way that would facilitate future use of drone delivery.”

A situation where it is unclear whether drone deliveries are compatible with existing property law.

But Carl Roche, Temple’s colleague at Osborne Clark, points out one “fly in the ointment”, with property law providing that a home owner actually owns the airspace above their property “up to the height which is ‘necessary’ for the ordinary use and enjoyment of that property.” But as Roche notes, it doesn’t say what that height is, and there’s little help from the Civil Aviation Act. “This creates a situation where it is unclear whether drone deliveries are compatible with existing property law,” Roche noted, and the government may need to step in.

All of that may sound like the boring piece of the drone puzzle, but it’s regulation, rather than technology, that’s actually holding back airborne deliveries. “If we had regulatory permission, we’d be delivering to your house right now,” Zipline co-founder Keller Rinaudo told the The New York Times.

Safety first

Discussions around regulations are moot if delivery firms can’t prove their drones are safe, said Temple. “The timeline will be dependent on how quickly the safety side of drone technology can be developed and how rapidly it can be proven – it’s worth bearing in mind that tests for driverless cars have been underway for far longer than tests for delivery drones, and we’re still some way off the integration of driverless cars into everyday life,” she noted.

And we need to know what happens if a drone falls from the sky, whether by mechanical fault or devious hacker.

Of course, it’s not only the safety of people, their property and their pets – what about the package? A gun-toting Kentucky resident last year blasted a drone out of the sky, believing it was spying on his sunbathing daughter. One American researcher argues that the biggest hurdle to drones isn’t the technology, but people, saying her own son would probably “throw rocks at it – because it’s there”.shooting_drone

Because of such concerns, Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos believes drones will first require more controlled conditions, such as specialised landing pads. “The safety and the liability risk is quite high,” he told me, during the launch of Mercedes-Benz vans with in-built drone landing pads. “So you need to make sure that you guard it against people and animals and things that you cannot control in the environment, to make sure that you have a high degree of success. Otherwise the system won’t work, you know? You may have incidents at the beginning that will just kill the opportunity.”

Cost effective

Drone delivery will only happen if it saves money for retailers. The so-called “last mile” is the problem with delivery – it makes up more than a quarter of the total delivery price. This isn’t helped by our tendency to be absent during the day, with as many as a one in eight Royal Mail shipments missed the first time around.

All of that means that online orders actually cost most retailers more than selling in store, although that stat includes groceries, which are more expensive to deliver. That’s why Amazon et al see delivery drones as one solution, and if it is successful, Deutsche Bank predicts that the halving of costs it would offer the already competitive retailer would destroy bricks-and-mortar rivals within ten years, saying “retail stores would cease to exist”.

That assumes drone delivery prices are cheaper than humans with lorries. Zipline says its drone service is “at cost parity” with “existing technologies” such as motorcycles, but that’s comparing drones to more expensive couriers rather than the standard post or bulk deliveries. (Although as Zipline’s Okenshorn points out, there’s the added benefit of fewer emissions, which is nothing to sneeze – or cough – at.)zipline_-_delivery

“We’re still a few years away from aerial delivery of low-value items being technically achievable and economically affordable,” Okenshorn said. “But it is definitely a part of the future.”

Right now, for your basic deliveries, drones aren’t yet cheap enough, so Matternet’s Raptopoulos believes deliveries will begin with more niche applications, such as delivering a component or part to a remote worksite. Customers would tolerate a higher cost in such cases because otherwise all their staff will have to down tools and wait for the new part – whereas a half-hour drone delivery means they can get back to the job at hand.

“What happens usually with [technology like] drones is it starts as expensive, and you go after niche applications, and then it becomes more and more mainstream,” said Raptopoulos. “You have of course the regulatory environments maturing, you have public opinion maturing, you have costs coming down. I have no doubt that this is going to be a part of how we receive goods in the future. The question of when this happens, and on what scale, is a difficult one to answer.”

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