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Are drone deliveries a realistic prospect?

The Guardian // 30th July 2016
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Are drone deliveries a realistic prospect?” was written by Samuel Gibbs, for The Guardian on Friday 29th July 2016 14.57 UTC

Are drones really going to deliver my shopping?

That’s what the likes of Amazon hope. Drones have the potential to carry small items quickly from one place to another without having to worry about traffic, personnel costs or labour strikes. But it’s a bit more complicated than that: drones as we know them today are either giant, expensive killing machines or small, hovering things that can carry little more than a camera.

How much can they carry and how far?

Most can already ferry a small box of items weighing a couple of kilograms, but Amazon and others are looking to build drones capable of carrying up to 25kg for around 10 miles, likely meaning packages weighing under 3kg each. Good enough for onions and a pint of milk – but forget getting your next washer-drier flown into your back yard.

Can’t they go any further?

If drone delivery ever takes off it will only be for what’s referred to as the “last-mile handover”. To get a package your door it will have to be shipped to a nearby delivery centre. Some companies already operate a similar system for their one-hour delivery services, whereby items are held at local staging areas and delivered by couriers.

How do they avoid crashing into planes, trains and automobiles?

Drones are not a problem for most other aircraft because they do not fly above 400ft and aren’t sharing the same airspace as passenger jets, for instance. But restrictions around airports and other hazardous zones will be needed to stop drones coming into proximity with landing or ascending aircraft.

There are two types of drones: those flown remotely by human pilots and autonomous drones that fly themselves. Remote pilots rely on cameras and other sensors to spot objects and avoid them. But like self-driving cars, autonomous drones are increasingly using sensors to automatically detect objects and avoid them. There is no reason that a drone couldn’t spot a parked car, tree or person walking and avoid them.

Will they land in my back garden?

Most drones guided by GPS are capable of flying and hovering over an exact spot to an accuracy of about one metre, so hovering and lowering packages to the ground is possible. Landing in people’s gardens, at least in Britain, would be more difficult, and both methods will be strongly affected by the weather.

Quad or octocopters, with four or eight propellers, are relatively stable and able to compensate for gusts of wind – up to a point. The stability of drones capable of switching from fixed-wing flight to a helicopter-like hovering state have yet to be proven, but could be more efficient over longer distances.

What if I don’t have a garden?

It’s likely that any drone delivery service will require a safe and secure landing zone. Dropping items off in the middle of the street is asking for trouble. Drone delivery services might not be available to those in flats or without gardens.

What will legal rules be surrounding it?

Current legislation means that drones cannot be flown within 50 metres of a vehicle, building or a person, or within 150 metres of a built-up area. Drones also have to remain in line of sight and within 500 metres of the pilot, which has hampered attempts to use drones for delivery or surveillance.

But Amazon has just been granted permission to test drones carrying packages up to 2.3kg in weight below 400ft, but crucially, not within line of sight and within closer proximity to buildings and people. The final rules and regulations about where and how big a drone can fly are still under review, and likely will be for some years yet, both in the UK and the US.

How safe is it to allow a series of drones to fly over our heads?

The technology has yet to be proven, but restrictions on size and where and when they can fly should mean the risks to those on the ground are minimal. One important test they must pass will be whether they can be safely controlled at all times. Mistakes such as sudden vertical jumps could put them in the path of aircraft, while their robustness against hackers will be paramount to avoid them being turned into weapons.

Who’s actually trying this?

Amazon is one of a handful of high-profile companies, also including Google, looking into it, but the first drone deliveries made in the US last year were by a company called Flirtey. The drone-maker partnered with Nasa and others to demonstrate rural medical deliveries and ship-to-shore transport of blood samples, with the potential to aid disaster-relief efforts. Autonomous deliveries have yet to be proven, but are likely to be the way forward.

Is this a realistic prospect?

The technology to lift goods into the air using small multi-armed drones already exists, but there are many regulatory and technology hurdles to overcome – not least cost-efficiency – before automated drones are capable of delivering goods to your door.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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