As drones become ever more popular and their capabilities advance, several industries are adopting them as a means of driving down costs and offering more value.
One industry that is presently experiencing the wind of change is the delivery industry—particularly drone food delivery.
Is it possible to cheaply and reliably deliver all manner of food orders within minutes after a customer makes the order? Can this be done at scale and under ever weather condition? These are some of the questions which some big players with deep pockets like Amazon and Uber are currently trying to find the answers to.
And it is not difficult to see why these businesses are so interested.
Consider that, for short distance deliveries, food delivery app services like Uber Eats and GrubHub between pay human drivers approximately $6 to $8 per delivery or per trip.
Now, compare those prices to the $0.88 which, according to analysis by Ark Invest, it would cost Amazon Air Prime to drone deliver a 5lb product.
The potential for saving costs is significant.
Should these companies be able to overcome the technical and legal barriers standing in the way of full scale deployment of autonomous food delivery drones, it could change the way we seek out, order, and receive our food orders forever.
The entire distribution network for, for example, might end up being redesigned in order to increase efficiency, drive costs down, and ramp up scale. This would, in turn, push up the number of online orders made and therefore change the whole cultural framework around eating and ordering food.
How this comes about is going to be interesting to behold. But, first things first:
Can Drones Deliver Food?
In the truest sense of the word, drones are able to deliver whatever they can carry and fly with. In the case of drone food delivery, some strides have even been made in this regard by several companies that have performed public tests involving limited deployments of drones in certain areas.
But all these have been closely monitored experiments involving drones flying predetermined routes under the very best weather conditions.
We are nowhere near an iRobot-like future with hundreds of drones deployed across the city skyline in any weather, accurately delivering food orders.
A lot of businesses have this future in mind for drone food delivery, however, and are making strides in that direction. Here are a few of them:
The first FAA approved drone delivery to ever take place occurred way back in 2015.
The drone startup, Flirtey, delivered pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies to a free medical clinic in Wise County, Virginia.
A little later, in 2016, Flirtey partnered with Dominos Pizza to carry out pizza deliveries in New Zealand. In the same year, 2016, Flirtey was also able to carry out the first fully autonomous FAA approved drone delivery to an urban area whereby bottled water and emergency food items were among the stuff delivered.
These were the first proofs that the concept could work, and the drone food delivery industry has never looked back since.
Today, Flirtey carries out drone food deliveries in partnership with 7-Eleven. A limited number of customers are able to order goods through their phone and have them drone delivered at their house. The effort is FAA approved and still requires employees keeping the drones in their line of sight to take over in case of any eventualities.
Flytrex and AHA
The drone food delivery revolution fired off in Europe a little later in 2017 when the Iceland company, AHA teamed up with the Israeli drone startup, Flytrex to deliver food packages in 2017.
Today, Flytrex is deep into testing food deliveries in a Raleigh, North Carolina, suburb in partnership with an undisclosed restaurant. The partnership aims to provide information needed for developing a regulatory framework to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, through their Project Wing has made its own in-roads into the field of drone food delivery.
According to Co-Lead of Project Wing, “Companies are likely to have fleets of thousands of UAS in the air at any one time”. And Alphabet is taking steps to ensure they have an adequate piece of the pie when the time comes.
In 2016, Project Wing teamed up with Chipotle to test this concept in September 2016 at Virginia Tech. Their autonomous drones delivered burritos to hungry students stationed in an open field. The predetermined flight from the food truck was short (The students were located very close by) and closely monitored. The drones hovered while the food was slowly lowered to the grateful contingent below.
Project Wing has so far concentrated most of their testing efforts on Canberra, Australia, due to the friendly regulations in place and the surrounding low population density which make it an ideal location for testing drone food delivery.
That notwithstanding, in April 2019, Alphabet received the go-ahead from the FAA to begin delivering goods by drone in Virginia—making drone food deliveries via Project Wing a thing to look forward to in the very near future in that region.
After initial testing at San Diego State University in partnership with McDonald’s, Uber Eats has embarked upon establishing their own urban drone food delivery service. The FAA recently gave approval for the endeavor and Uber is looking to add other restaurant partners to the program.
There is a twist to the Uber Eats drone program: it does not use drones for the full delivery.
Customers will order meals, partner restaurants will prepare and load these meals onto drones, and then these drones will fly to a predetermined drop-off point. From that drop-off point, an Eats delivery driver will complete the last mile to hand deliver the food to the customer.
Given that the service is being deployed in dense urban areas, this is the only feasible procedure for now. Behind the scenes, Uber’s Elevate Cloud Systems will track and guide the drone and also notify the Eats delivery driver on when and where to collect the package for last mile delivery
Will It Be Available Everywhere?
Perhaps we will live in a future where birds compete for the skies with fully autonomous drones bearing food packages headed for locations with precise coordinates locked on. But that remains some way off from what is currently feasible.
What we have at the moment are pilot projects rolled out in specific conditions in specific cities. The logistical and legal hurdles are quite significant, but with all the efforts being made by some major players, things are moving towards the right direction.
How Would Future Food Delivery by Drones Work?
Drone food delivery hinges on the same things as drone delivery in general. Controlled tests and several pilots from diverse group of players including surprises like HBO and Uber, give us a glimpse of what is possible.
But only a glimpse.
The major question as of now is if drone food delivery, or even drone deliver in general, is scalable and hence economically viable.
It is all well and good to have a few drones floating away under the pristine summer skies. However, real transformative change is going to require nothing short of hundreds of drones occupying the same space and making deliveries under a range of conditions.
One of the biggest challenges is safety in the skies, another is getting all the drones to work in sync.
Drones flying over dense urban areas needs to be able to tackle anything from trees to kites to birds swarming past.
To achieve the level of synchronicity which is necessary, NASA, the FAA, an a host of industry stakeholders are working on drafting a drone air traffic control system.
Steps are already being taken:
- NASA hopes to have finished the research necessary for implementing such a system so the FAA can grant implementation. Testing with stakeholders like Project Wing is already underway.
- Deployment may roll out in the US if testing goes as planned. 2023 seems a realistic timeline for regular drone deliveries to homes in a select few pilot cities.
- Success in other countries that are currently looking in drone food deliveries like New Zealand, Australia, China, and Britain, may mean that systems would roll out quicker in the US.
Regulations will loosen only after all these technical obstacles are overcome.
At the moment, the FAA requires one operator per drone, with the drone in the operator’s line of sight at all times, making the whole concept of autonomous drone food delivery impossible. In fact, this is one of the reasons why American companies are required to test in different countries.
There are also problems with what the general population might think of all this.
For example, drones don’t exactly sound like ice cream trucks. They are loud and sometimes disrupting. People would have to get used to having hundreds of these things swarming in the air above, which currently might seem like something out of a horror movie.
We can only watch and see how all these developments unfold.
For now, we know drone food deliveries are possible, and are happening on a small scale in specific locations, but they’re unlikely to be introduced on a widespread basis for a relatively long time.