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Drones have been wavering around the technological periphery for some time now. Launched into the public’s conscious in 2013, when Amazon first flirted with the idea of drone delivery, progress appears to be slow.

With news now emerging that the Swiss postal system are set to test a drone delivery service over the summer, hype and possibility are growing ever closer to reality.

But can drone delivery really work, and do we even want it?

 

A Viable Service?

Rumours have circulated over the viability of drone delivery since Amazon lifted the idea into the wider technological concious in 2013. At the time, many scoffed at the concept, dismissing it as unworkable and just downright ridiculous. Amazon’s agenda was also questioned when they handily timed their outlandish announcement for Cyber Monday- a puppet used purely for some free PR.

Alas, Amazon persevered, and now have taken a small step towards making drone delivery a reality. Hidden within Amazon’s US patent application are the first real details as to how the system might work. Now the US Patent and Trademark Office have approved the ideas, details on the application submitted in September 2014 have been shared.

 

Video- Youtube

Each of Amazon’s drones will be kitted out with multiple sensors, sonar, radar, infrared and cameras. The drones will use its many navigational applications to plan a route to the desired location. Using local weather information and constantly monitoring its path to avoid animals and other humans, the unmanned vehicle will be able to update its route as it goes. This will also account for the potential for an ever changing destination. Each drone will be able to locate you via your smartphone. So, a customer could choose to have their parcel delivered directly to them, (and would be free to move around as they pleased) or send the parcel to a desired location- be it your car, house or even a boat in the middle of a lake.

Currently only planning to deliver parcels up to the weight of 5 pounds (2.2Kg), Amazon are ploughing ahead with their plans to revolutionise online deliveries. Whilst the methods agreed in their patent are unlikely to convert into any finalised system, Amazon are at least showing that drone delivery isn’t just pie-in-the-sky. And they aren’t the only ones.

As mentioned in the intro, a number of other companies are experimenting with alternative delivery methods. DHL have long dabbled with the idea, and recently they ran a test on the tiny North Sea Island of Juist. Taking aspects of the tracking system proposed by Amazon, DHL are also currently testing a car-delivery system. Taking place in Munich throughout May, DHL couriers will be provided with a one off code to open the boot of your Audi car. Once the parcel is safely in your boot, the door is closed and the courier is no longer able to access any part of your car.

 

Audi

Image- Audi via BBC 

In February, Taobao began running a one hour ginger tea delivering service for 450 customer in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.  This summer, the Swiss Postal Service will test the use of drones for packages weighing to 1kg. The Matternet-developed drones can travel 12 miles on one charge, delivering documents, parts and medicine to the surrounding area.

At the time, Matternet outlined their justification for the project:

“The primary aim of this pilot project is a Proof of Concept to clarify the legal framework, consider local conditions and explore the technical and business capabilities of the drones.”

Complied on top of one another, the issues Matternet and co. are looking to overcome are daunting. Firstly, any drone delivery service would have to overcome no shortage of legal difficulties. Amazon have so far been unable to test their drones in US airspace, reducing them to testing in Canada. Unable to gain the necessary permits from the Federal Aviation Administration in the US, Amazon have looked elsewhere for more liberal airspace laws. Obviously, any green-light for drone delivery would be subject to an agreed flight path and height. Issues over avoiding private airspace, landing on private land and avoiding other feathered aviation-enabled creatures are aplenty. Any real-world system would have a great number of procedural hurdles to overcome.

 

The Problem(s)

Unravelling the logistical nightmare that is drone delivery gets even more complicated when you throw safety concerns into the mix. How does a drone account for a child or dog careering into its motorised blades? Could we soon be showered under a relentless rain of cheap electronics and books, or are the packages 100% secure? Are the navigation systems accurate enough to avoid every street-level power line, or will entire cities be plunged into the middle ages due to a drone with a bad sense of direction?

Any incorporation of drones into a delivery service would be done so to improve efficiency. So how efficient can the drones be? Amazon have said in the past that their drones don’t work in heavy rain, sleet or snow- ruling its use out in Britain for all but a fortnight of the annual calendar. And what’s to stop the more rebellious amongst us launching a brick (or firing a bullet for our American cousins) at a passing drone, in the hope we can pick-up a new iPad with a drone thrown in?

 

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Image- DHL

A plethora of largely unanswered questions then. Ones which might be easier to overcome should the system be tweaked just ever so slightly. Some suggestions have been made that a drone/traditional van partnership might be a happy compromise. A delivery driver could continue his daily routine, bearing gifts to community, cheerily whistling as he plods on by. Whenever the postal worker halts his van, a collection of drones are released from the back. Dispersing to their allocated destinations, a succession of parcels are delivered in the time it previously took to do just one. Efficiency would be increased by less travelling time for the drones, which in turn would go some way to extinguishing a number of the safety issues from earlier.

Indeed, innovators into the sector could do worse than tailoring the service to those who need it the most. Many of the existing logistical issues would only be exacerbated in city centres- an area where you might suggest they are needed the least. In rural areas postal workers have to travel far and wide between deliveries. Depots are situated poles apart. Drone services might be bettered suited to less-crowded areas in the countryside.

 

Your Thoughts

Whatever the form a postal drone system will take on, what’s increasingly likely is that it will become a reality. But what are your thoughts on the concept? Will it revolutionise the postal service, providing us with greater levels of convenience? Or is it more likely that we’ll see flying pigs delivering parcels before any drone system is agreed? And do you even want it, or do you fear for the job security of our postal workers under the threat of automation?

Let us know.

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Its a good idea, however like will stated whats stopping people throwing or gunning the drones down for free items? What happens if the item needs a signature? How will the drone recognize if its correct? Although I can see it working for normal postal service and rural areas (farms etc).

  2. Seems unlikely this will ever be cost effective. One package at a time, recharging in between deliveries (it is power intensive and you need to keep enough to return with the package if no one is home). Kids will quickly work out that a rock tied to a length of string will bring it to the ground fairly easily. Also for larger items you will need to still have a van out delivering, all this is going to do is leave those vans half empty, how is this cost effective? Main issue will be the aviation authority as this will need a change of legislation on flying in built up areas and I just can’t see that happening in the UK (they currently don’t even allow human controlled drones in towns).

    Doesn’t seem very well thought through, and maybe it is just a publicity stunt. Either way if driverless cars hit the roads then it will change to you just getting a text to go to the van outside your house where tapping in a number will pop open a panel and you will be able to take your package (much more straight forward). Secure and cheap, as no driver costs and no loss of space for cab, and probably can get away with being a very light vehicle as safety concerns will be massively relaxed without humans on board (it doesn’t matter if it gets trashed in an accident). It can do 07:00 to 21:00 without stopping and double up as pizza delivery van in the evening lol. It won’t care what the weather is like and won’t strike for better wages. Most importantly it won’t get blasted in a freak gust of wind and sever peoples heads off at the neck.

  3. strange the yanks don’t need this much thought to enact a drone delivery program, they’ve been utilising them for delivery of ordnance for decades…..

  4. And you get a nice free lunch box with every delivery, though you will likely have to pay a premium for the drone delivery, though I cant see it becoming the norm I can see it being useful in certain areas.

  5. Until they sort out the mobile phone signal in rural parts of the Uk this will never get off the ground (sorry lol). Where I live in north east England I can generally recieve one bar of H+ but two miles away where I work I’m lucky if I recieve any signal at all. Just checking email can take 15 minutes. So what’s the drone going to do, circle round and round for 10 mins til I get a signal?
    I don’t think my employer would be too pleased either if I was standing outside for 10 mins waving my mobile in the air!

  6. I think that with the current terrorist threats throughout Europe and America where this idea would be used it would be a very naïve government that would give the go ahead to such a hair brained scheme.

    What has been the main use of Drones thus far, spying and delivering explosive payloads to unsuspecting victims.

    I S would no doubt be quick to place an order with Amazon to buy a job lot, as long as they are NOT delivered by Drones!

  7. On the face of it it would seem like a good idea but I believe there are too many problems to overcome, one of which comes to mind.
    On many occasions I have taken in my neighbours parcel and he has done the same for me thus ensuring that delays are avoided. I don’t see a drone knocking on my neighbours door and asking him to take my parcel do you?

  8. The CAA and the ANO control the air space over the uk and anything commercial needs special certificates if over certain weights. Also the operator will have to complete a course with a certificate at the end .Even then can only fly over a controlled area and line of sight .If you start relaxing the rules then the skies will be filled with every tom ,dick and harry buzzing up and down the streets with them with the potential of causing some very serious accidents.

  9. I can`t see it working. It sounds wonderful on paper, but there are far too many real-world variables. The article mentioned many of them.

    I have yet to know of a civilian computer system AI that can accurately navigate from A to B while avoiding high buildings, lamp posts and many other incidental objects. Hitting people would be the biggest catastrophe. Even if they fly high enough to avoid such things what about potential collisons with low flying aircraft ?

    What happens when they get to the destination? What if the customer isn`t there yet? Are they expected to land and just wait? What if someone steals it?

    In fact, I`ve had problems with Amazon`s parcel delivery and that relies on a van and driver – I seriously expect it to get MUCH worse with drones. Drones never arriving or going somewhere completely different, etc, etc. Also, the fact that they can only work in sunny weather is laughable.

    No, it won`t work until our technology uses an advanced AI that can prepare for these eventualities and cope with them, plus handle all basic weathers (rain, snow) and I know of no such thing in civilian use. It may work in very simple locales, like the desert, but in populated cities – Not a chance. Pie in the sky, literally. Maybe in 2030.

  10. Well, Terra, you don’t know how often they need recharging, I’m sure that aspect has been well thought through already. Cost effectiveness is an issue only the operators can answer, if it isn’t efficient then they wouldn’t even be looking at it. As for half empty vans, well you simply use less vans right? More cost effective, not less. I agree with your other points, apart from making the cars lighter. Cars are not heavy for safety reasons, they are heavy because they are made of heavy engines and heavy, durable materials. A heavy engine needs a heavy chassis to carry it, and lightweight materials like carbon fibre are too expensive for mass production. Look at formula 1 as an example. Hijacking drones is a real concern though, as is the safety aspect. These are all problems that need to be overcome, and they will have to find solutions. It’s not impossible though.

  11. Great idea if you want a freebie, just bring it down. Always pot luck in what you get but great fun.

  12. Perhaps it would be useful to speed up delivery to use drones to delivery urgent parcels to a courier who is out on their rounds that can then deliver in the traditional manner.

  13. Terra is spot on.
    Battery technology would have to advance orders of magnitude to make this viable. I fly RC planes, helicopters and multi-rotors (aka drones) for a hobby and have flown professional drones of the type being talked about here. With a load onboard they can fly for 15 minutes if you are lucky before the battery runs out, and they don’t fly very fast. Allowing for safety margins that would give the drone an operating radius of about two miles, and then you would have to recharge or swap batteries between each and every delivery.

    It’s a total publicity stunt, nothing more at least not until they come up with a ‘wonder battery’.

  14. The most powerful drones can only fly for around an hour, but with all the extra sensors and computing power these will need along with the varying payload, i can’t see them staying in the air for long. the quadcopters i have built only get up to 30 minutes when hovering and no load, that relates to just over 10 minutes flying with a gopro.

  15. All fair enough, in the main.
    It’s science endeavour that has taught not to trust the the HandWave, and the wavers less. “They will have thought of that… .. ” ‘Leave it all to the market”, bug-eyed experts sitting at the same table as the Free Lunch and aspects of the great Soviet experiment even, are not encouraging – for anything.
    ‘Follow the money’ remains a better way of putting matters.
    Money flows nicely at certain stages of the ultimately good and of the useless, and it is that honey that serves to attract all manner of flies.
    There is Pangloss a-plenty here.
    Anyway, as a different punt:
    Parcel delivery by dedicated pneumatic tube-way. Now how negative can you be about that constellation of notions?

  16. I can see how they might be able to deliver small parcels over short distances. I think the problem is when they get to the house. How do they ring the doorbell to let you know they are waiting outside? And what happens if someone walks out of the house while they are hovering on the doorstep at eye level?

  17. How will it open and close my porch door when I am not in? Some of the delivery drivers whilst opening the door, leave it open to the elements because they can’t be bothered to shut it securely. So, who pays for the damaged door? Secondly putting the said driver or postman out of a job is not to my liking. One last thing, we get enough of squawking seagulls making a racket, so how quiet are these drones especially around christmas time buzzing us on their deliveries. Seriously not sure its a good idea for other serious reasons people have posted below.

  18. There are always the Luddites when it comes to things like this. “It’ll never happen”, “The human body will die if it exceeds 25mph”. We could never imagine leaving a message like this via a globally networked personal computer just a few years ago.

    As far as morons throwing rocks at drones. What is stopping them right now from breaking open speed cameras to get themselves a nice spec DSLR? Or smashing shop windows to steal all the lovely free stuff on show?..

    Let’s not write-off the future before it’s began.

  19. It will happen, the possibility requires the attention of global powerhouse to implement, let’s get away from batteries or electrical charging, adapted propulsion engines could control a senior drone with a payload of 25 smaller drones, the parcel would arrive 2-3 mins before you set off for work in a morning potentially locked into to your IP address. Photographic evidence would support acceptance of the goods. This is only the start- NHS sending defibs to accident locations, nz government droning forest areas for significant de forrestation report, then arming the drones with new seeds for distribution, potential is wide open.

  20. Far too dangerous to be feasible yet. A multicopter drone and a small package will weigh over 1kg. The slightest technical failure and these things do drop like a stone, I have seen, I have played with them. If one of these has a failure from 2 or 3 stories high it coil seriously injure or even kill someone

  21. I can see what will come next. Pirate drones designed to capture a delivery drone and Hi Jack it to the home of some thief. This could include a sort of net to capture and disable the drone then enclose it in a black bag to blind all the cameras. I suggest a new name for the scam – “drone fishing”

  22. the best article i have seen in a while..really brilliant and very well covered,but so may of these comments are very real and well thought out….the bottom line i think is maybe a emergency service or delivery to CERTAIN areas but the legal arguments for city even town usage would be huge so wonderful and creative idea but as has been said it won’t happen….i am amazed at how many people have comented on this which makes it clear that we the public are really fasinated about this consept but as others have said for all the truly remarkable interest i cannot see it being viable except in selective areas….

    Will i constantly defend you over the idiots who read yours and others blog pages by picking holes in grammer or some other petty dig at you rather than having a contribution to the conversation but just be bitter and normally very offensive comments….you have done a very good job on this subject and as so many people have elected to indulge into serious and very well informed points of view it is very obvious that we the public while thinking it is more paper than substance are truly fascinated by this whole idea…..it really is very interesting indeed….well done to others as well for some very well informed and comprehensive comments….thank you all this has been very interesting indeed.

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