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

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]

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