Since the initial trials started a few years back, many people were enthralled by the idea of having pizza delivered on their front porch. Delivery by drone gained further momentum when Amazon did its first public trials in December 2016 at Cambridge in the UK, and in March 2017 at the MARS conference in California, delivering a few bottles of sunscreen to the conference site.
However, Google has been secretly experimenting since 2012 in Australia with “Project Wing”, using an unconventional hybrid fixed wing/ VTOL design. But a larger scale drone delivery service has been in use since 2015 in four Chinese provinces, the first being a fruit delivery of 26lb to Meizhou Island. Also around this time, Alibaba has commenced public trials of drone deliveries. They sent 450 orders for tea to customers in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
Other role players abound. Airbus in Singapore, UPS in partnership with CyPhy, and 7-Eleven with Flirtey are amongst those who have demonstrated their interest in drone delivery. Japan has been the venue for a number of experiments, including delivery of golf balls to golfers on the course, deliveries to the elderly in mountainous terrain, and mail delivery.
The references above do not represent an exhaustive list, with more delivery-by-drone projects taking place in China, Israel, Canada and the U.S. Virtually all major distribution networks have been investigating the potential. Some of these have since culminated into commercial projects after some countries, including the U.S., facilitated commercial drone deliveries through providing appropriate regulation earlier in 2018.
Worthwhile mentioning is the Flytrex/ AHA Iceland project in Reykjavik, who commenced with commercial activities early in 2017. The requirement was urgent because of the many bridges and waterways in the city and great time and cost savings could be achieved through drone delivery. The operation is established with servicing well over 100 stores and fast food outlets throughout the city.
Another established project occurs in Rwanda, with the delivery of blood parcels in rural areas. The operator, Zipline, makes use of a fixed wing drone launched from a launch rail and ends the flight by being “caught” while still airborne, by a wire spanned between posts. The package gets delivered by dropping it with a parachute. The BBC reported in May 2018 that the company has already delivered 7,000 units of blood, flying in excess of 300,000 km at a height between 100’ and 400’.
In Australia, Project Wing mentioned previously, is currently (December 2018) testing larger scale delivery by drones in a few Canberra suburbs. The projects is promising but their aircraft design has been criticized by residents as too noisy. The company is working to reduce the noise levels.
The Inhibiting Factor
It is clear from the lists (albeit perhaps inconclusive) above that only a few of the experiments were able to reach commercial status thus far. This is surprising given the potential benefits of drone delivery, and the obvious fact that the technology has already been developed to a very mature level. The reason may become clear when analysing the development pathway of regulatory frameworks by the different controlling authorities.
Many of the authorities have laid down the basic laws to drone flying. For example, these common rules are often included:
- Not above 400’- e.g. USA, U.K. and South Africa (different definitions are in use of what 400’ constitutes)
- Line-of-sight, daytime operations- e.g. USA, India, U.K. and South Africa, who also has a restriction that the aircraft must remain within a 500m radius from the controller.
- Restrictions to protect privacy: The USA and South Africa specifies a minimum of 50m from people and private property. In Australia, the restriction is 30m- read more here about developments in the Aussie Law.
- The airport clearance buffer zones vary a lot between the different authorities. In South Africa, it is 10km from airports including helipads. In contrast, it is 1 km in the UK, with additional height restrictions. At the time of publishing this article changes were forthcoming to widen the buffer zone- read more here.
Some of the authorities exclude delivery expressly. In other cases, the rigid application of the Line-of-Sight principle (BVLOS) precludes drone delivery in itself.
So, when can I order and get my pizza via drone delivery?
It is not clear when the authorities will start focusing on facilitating the developing of large scale drone delivery through regulation, rather than inhibiting it. The most recent positive development is in India, with the incorporation of Digital Sky Platform, a handy app designed to facilitate drone flights including deliveries.
It is possible that some authorities might follow suit (hopefully soon!)