Pizza Delivery From The Sky? Drone Distribution Networks Held Back By Regulators

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I am waiting for my first pizza bomb but the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration just won’t get out of the way. I read about it on the Internet – an enterprising Domino’s franchisee in the U.K. who was experimenting using a drone copter for delivery this summer. Alas, my wait in the U.S could be years if the FAA doesn’t get moving.

Despite a groundswell of interest in drones and numerous startups that plan to rely on drone flight, the FAA does not allow use of drones for commercial purposes. Worse still, the FAA has provided no clear roadmap for freeing the skies to allow small unmanned vehicles to fly. Oddly, recreational use of drones remains entirely unchecked.

So why are drones such a big deal? In our robotic future, anything that can reduce urban congestion, minimize carbon emissions, save money and save trips to the emergency room (car accidents kill, you know) will drive huge value in the economy and make our lives better, to boot.

Pizza is just the start. Drones are perfect delivery vehicles for just about anything that fit in a small box or a shopping bag. Interestingly, this describes perfectly what a host of startups are attempting to do right now with people’s cars (TaskRabbit), bike messengers (PostMate), and local delivery vehicles (InstantCart, AmazonFresh). Drones are better than any of those options for a significant portion of delivery orders.

Here’s why. Drones are efficient, small, flexible, and not bound by gravity (unlike, say, automated cars). They can be operated remotely. They have a small carbon footprint (particularly the electrically powered drones). They do not cause wear and tear on public infrastructure. Unlike cars and bikes, the bill of materials for drones relies significantly less on large masses of raw materials and more on the always attractive economics of computing and Moore’s Law. In other words, drones will get cheaper and cheaper, and at a much faster rate than cars or bikes.

Are commercial drone flights unsafe? That depends on the driver and the regulations. Humans driving drones without proper training would certainly constitute a real hazard. But including autopilot capabilities to allow programmable flight paths not reliant on human skills might solve a lot of these issues. (In fact, I believe that in the next decade consensus will grow that humans should probably let computers do all the piloting – something the recent Asiana crash in San Francisco hammered home). Such a move, also, would confine drone traffic to specific avenues, minimizing chaos.

This doesn’t solve questions around collision management, altitude regulations, air rights, and potential privacy violations. (As in, a drone buzzing a hotel room for surveillance is uncool). But all of those except the privacy violations are technology questions that can be solved. Mandating altitude governors in commercially approved drones could keep drones flying in specific bands. No fly zones could be electronically enforced with geofences around airports, military bases, and political establishments, as an example.

Personally, I am waiting for a drone-based delivery service that mirrors what Lyft has done with cars and allows hobbyists to “volunteer” to deliver products. I imagine the reaction will be swift and Draconian. But we need some sort of push to get government moving towards incorporating drones into transportation plans.

Rarely do you get a win-win-win-win solution. Drones could do the job cheaper, giving people back more time to do what they want (rather than drive to the store), reduce wear and tear on our stressed cities and suburbs, and reduce pollution. Hopefully, the guys at the FAA also dream of Pizza Drones and would enjoy getting that half-gallon of milk delivered to their doorstep (or apartment balcony) within an hour or less. I certainly would.

Alex Salkever is a technology executive, journalist and consultant based in San Francisco. He is co-authoring a book with Vivek Wadhwa on the key traits businesses require to evolve and thrive in an era of disruptive change. 

[images: multirotor helicopter courtesy Shutterstock]

Discussion — 16 Responses

  • Tony Pelliccio August 13, 2013 on 11:59 am

    The benefits go far beyond. Perhaps mail delivery could go automated drone too. It would solve one problem for the USPS. You don’t need to pre-fund 75 years of health care coverage for an inanimate entity.

  • Susan Sayler August 13, 2013 on 2:11 pm

    Are drones silent? That is all we need is a traffic jam of drones buzzing overhead along with every other form of noise pollution we are already living with.

  • Andrew Atkin August 13, 2013 on 2:14 pm

    You forgot the Noise problem. No thank you. Not in my city…

    It’s not just the fact that props are a loud noise, and an offensive noise, but being elevated they give you a direct acoustic line from point of emission to reception (no diffusion), which is much more startling on the human brain.

    One or two would be a novelty, but with everyone ordering up dinner with them it would drive us all nuts.

    Yes to drones – but not flying drones. They will be micro-cars driving on the road, with essentially the same advantages only cheaper and infinitely better on the domestic PEACE.

    For your interest:

    • Nicholas Ayers Andrew Atkin August 14, 2013 on 1:11 pm

      modern copter drones are silent.

      • Andrew Atkin Nicholas Ayers August 16, 2013 on 2:29 pm

        No way. Do you have a link to an example?

      • rtryon Nicholas Ayers September 2, 2013 on 2:41 pm

        Are they equally quiet when they collide or shot down by competitors?

  • marciot August 13, 2013 on 2:29 pm

    Is it really that energy efficient to deliver pizza by drones? It seems using vertical thrust to move anything vertically against gravity is always going to use more energy than moving that thing across the ground against friction. I think this is more about novelty than efficiency.

    • Andrew Atkin marciot August 13, 2013 on 3:59 pm

      Yes – you’re right.

      I doubt even Domino’s takes it seriously. It’s a publicity stunt (but a good one at that).

      • Nicholas Ayers Andrew Atkin August 14, 2013 on 1:20 pm

        Silently flying, hovering totally autonomous vehicle. Seems useful for this and many other ways to me.

        I and don’t think Domino’s or anyone should be dismissive about the possible usefulness of any new tech.

    • Homer marciot August 15, 2013 on 6:13 am

      It’s FAR more energy efficient to deliver pizza using a drone than using a 1.5-ton car.

  • frankiebishop August 15, 2013 on 4:06 pm

    You can still make one at home better, cheaper and faster.

  • thomowen20 August 20, 2013 on 7:57 pm

    Question: What will the end result of all this concern about privacy from the masses add up to?

    Answer: Drones will be heavily regulated and only available to law enforcement and government.

    Makes me wonder if we aren’t being steered by the media on the whole drone thing.

    • Susan Sayler thomowen20 August 21, 2013 on 10:02 am

      Good point!

    • Lolzy thomowen20 September 14, 2013 on 3:48 pm

      But are they wrong?

      The way I see it, it is just as bad for privacy if used by the PD as it is by private citizens.
      But if you legalize murder for police officers it doens’t mean you should legalize it for everyone- it means that you should criminalize for police as well.

  • Lolzy September 14, 2013 on 3:45 pm

    How funny would it be when people start hunting for flying pizass…