What happened to the promise of drone delivery?
Companies often make bold statements about the readiness of new technologies. But implementation does not always come to fruition. Instead, these ideas are reduced to sensationalized statements and promises. Dates and time frames are established, suggesting that the general public will soon see wide use of a company’s latest brainchild. However, when that time comes, the technology often remains incomplete. Another year or, in some cases, a further decade is added onto to the completion date.
This has certainly been the case with flying cars, nuclear fusion and even the cure for cancer. There have been times when new technology has not made practical sense or has proven to be far more difficult to implement than first expected. Then there are times when supporters of the tech have completely overstated its capability or readiness. But there are a multitude of reasons for these setbacks.
Half a decade ago, delivery drones were touted as the next big thing. After Amazon completed its first package delivery via drone in 2016, the company continued to promise that Amazon Prime Air would be launched ‘next year’. To date, the service still does not exist.
As early as 2013, various startups have been experimenting with drone deliveries. In 2015, Google’s subsidiary, Wing, promised to start large-scale operations by 2017. Wing, along with large delivery companies, including UPS and FedEx, was at the forefront of creating a buzz about this new and disruptive technology. Some companies continued with the hype, regardless of unmet deadlines.
Nevertheless, the hype was far from unsubstantiated. Drones have the potential to revolutionize almost every aspect of the shipping industry, much like the way the Internet was able to revamp mass media. Just imagine the possibility of ordering the latest gadgets via Amazon or even a fresh pizza from your local restaurant and having them delivered to your front door within minutes, regardless of traffic or weather conditions. Additionally, shipping costs would be low. Who wouldn’t want that?
Of course, operating such a scheme is far from easy. Most companies promising this type of service quickly ran into trouble. In early August 2021, an article published by Wired detailed that, in recent years, Amazon’s drone delivery service has all but collapsed and now faces significant cuts. Several days later, DHL announced that it will be discontinuing its delivery drone development program. Beforehand, many other drone delivery services also closed down or fell silent, which stoked further skepticism among tech enthusiasts and cargo industry professionals alike.
Flying is hard
And there are good reasons to be skeptical. Not only did almost all companies promising fast implementation of drone delivery networks fail to deliver, but the reason behind this failing is obvious. Some of them are even quite mundane.
On paper, the range and the payload capacity of modern drones seems sufficient for most delivery needs. But in reality, aspects are limited. Most projects proposed a delivery radius no larger than 15 kilometers (10 miles), which meant that sprawling urban areas (the main area of operations for delivery companies) would require new infrastructure. Operating in loosely populated areas would be completely unprofitable. Sending and recovering drones from a mobile platform, such as a truck, proved to be far trickier than initially thought. This was demonstrated by UPS when a drone was spectacularly crushed by an overly complicated recovery system during a much-publicized demonstration in 2017.
There were also safety and privacy issues. As companies began testing their delivery systems in various regions across the US, Oceania and Europe, concerned citizens from those areas began to form lobbying groups and organizations to fight against the technology. Nobody wants to be spied on by drones constantly buzzing above. Furthermore, nobody trusts multi-billion companies, even when they claim that the cameras mounted on delivery drones are for ‘navigational purposes’ only. And even fewer people want a malfunctioning drone, weighing over 25 kilograms (55 pounds), to crash into them while they’re in their own garden.
Weather and complicated topography, such as power lines, high-rise buildings and airports with no-fly zones, also presented further difficulties. But these problems were dwarfed by legal ones, especially as countries were spectacularly slow to adopt the appropriate legislation. While tests were conducted under various exemptions, regular operations were prohibited by law in most countries.
Whether it was requirements to fly drones only within visual range of an operator, prohibitions to fly over inhabited areas or, once again, privacy-related obstacles that would render navigating drones impossible, legislative issues created many safety and human rights issues. Furthermore, mass use of delivery drones requires a whole new kind of airspace regulation and oversight, which is a matter that many aviation authorities struggle with to this day.
…except for when it is not
So, what has happened to the promise of delivery drone services? Well, considering these issues, there are a multitude of reasons why the service has experienced issues.
Skeptics have attacked the idea of a utopia established under the belly of a delivery drone, and many agree with this argument. However, others have raised further points in support of drone technology and these deserve our consideration.
Google’s Wing service did not start in 2017. But it was established in 2019 in parts of Australia and offered a food delivery service from some local food shops. According to the company, the service is successful and, as of August 2021, continues to deliver products, including coffee and fried chicken, to the residents of Canberra and Logan City. It has since expanded to Helsinki (Finland) and, under special COVID-19 rules, Virginia, US.
Chinese commerce giant JD.com has been operating a semi-regular drone delivery network in some rural regions of China since 2016, and expanded it significantly to provide medical supplies during the pandemic. The use of delivery drones in healthcare was, arguably, the first successful application of the technology. US-based on-demand delivery service, Zipline opened the first such service in Rwanda in 2016, before expanding to Ghana. The company is also eyeing a number of other countries for further expansion.
These success stories appear to refute the argument that drone deliveries are only possible as an experiment or a publicity stunt. Given proper regulation and registration, their implementation is entirely feasible.
American science fiction writer William Gibson said: “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.” Delivery drones arrived as promised, albeit on a limited scale.
There is no doubt that the rate at which drone technology would be implemented was greatly overestimated during the initial pitches. This happens with many new technologies and is possibly even a cause of some commercial failures. But the concept is making its way to the general public country by country, state by state.
It appears to only be a question of time before drone technology is readily available to every sceptic. Even if that time is measured in decades.
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