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Will drone deliveries ever actually happen?

BY James O'Malley

22nd Jun 2023 Technology

Will drone deliveries ever actually happen?

Drones were meant to transform how we get parcels—so why hasn't it happened yet? Tech expert James O'Malley explores the potential future of drone deliveries

When drones first became widely available, around 15 years ago now, it wasn’t uncommon to find tech people painting dramatic pictures of how they were soon going to change the world.

However, if you look up into the largely empty sky above us, you can quite clearly see that hasn’t happened yet.

Sure, drones are useful for taking aerial photos, and are a fun hobby for nerds like me—but we’re a long way away from aerial superhighways, packed with autonomous drones zipping parcels, medical supplies and perhaps even your Deliveroo order around the country at speeds that would be near-impossible on the ground.

"We’re a long way away from aerial superhighways, packed with autonomous drones"

And we’re seemingly still a very long way away from it. In 2016, in a blaze of publicity, Amazon announced that it had completed its first ever aerial delivery.

In a heavily stage-managed video, we saw an Amazon “Prime Air” drone pick up a parcel from the company’s Cambridgeshire warehouse and fly it across the countryside, landing in the buyer’s garden, dropping the parcel, and then returning back to its home base.

But as far as I can tell, Amazon still has not completed its second ever drone delivery. In fact, since the video was released the company has reportedly downscaled its drone programme, and laid off or redeployed many of the people working on it.

Drone deliveries take off in Rwanda

Zipline employee sets up delivery drone for medical supplies delivery in RwandaCredit: World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr. Zipline drones delivery crucial medical supplies to hospitals in Rwanda

So, will drone delivery ever be a thing? There are some glimmers of a possible drone delivery future, not in Britain or even the United States, but in Africa.

Because also since 2016, rural hospitals in Rwanda have been receiving regular shipments of blood and other medical supplies by drone, thanks to a company called Zipline. And the service is very much for real.

Like Amazon, Zipline drones are not quadcopters with propellers, but fly more like traditional planes.

"Rural hospitals in Rwanda have been receiving regular shipments of blood and other medical supplies by drone"

After being launched into the air using a catapult system, they fly autonomously to their destination hospital, and once over the hospital grounds, drop their payload via parachute, which doctors can then pick up and take straight to their patients.

The drone then flies back to where it started—landing like a plane on an aircraft carrier by catching it with a wire.

It’s a hugely impressive system, and one that surely has saved lives thanks to the speed at which blood can be delivered in a country with a poorly developed road network. And since then the company has already expanded its operations to Ghana—and has delivered over a million doses of COVID-19 vaccine by drone.

The future of drone deliveries in the UK?

So could we ever expect such a system here? Unfortunately there’s a big difference between rural Africa and densely packed, bustling Britain. But now Zipline reckons it has the answer.

Earlier this year, the company announced a new short-range helicopter drone that could conceivably be used in cities to deliver food and the like. But there’s still a problem: British homes don’t have large gardens in which to land, and nobody wants loud, bulky drones constantly landing around the neighbourhood.

So how does Zipline plan to get around it? Seemingly by taking inspiration from Thunderbird 2.

The idea is that the new drone will hover overhead, quite high up—but once it is over your house, it will deploy a much smaller drone on a line from the mothership, containing a smaller propeller and your delivery.

That way, the smaller, quieter drone can carefully manoeuvre to exactly where it needs to be—while the mothership remains out of sight in the skies above your home at the other end of the umbilical.

Autonomous delivery robots hit the road

Automated robot delivery drones on pavementThe future of drone deliveries in the UK may favour the pavement over the sky

It’s a very cool idea, but I must admit I’m not entirely convinced. Assuming the technology can even fly a drone so precisely, the reality is that British cities may still have security and safety concerns about routinely having drones carrying stuff over our heads.

And that’s why I wonder if the real drone future could be crawling along the ground.

For a few years, “autonomous delivery robots”, that look like minifridges with wheels, have been stalking the pavements of Milton Keynes, Northampton and a handful of other towns in that particular part of the world, delivering takeaway meals.

"To date, the company claims to have made over 4 million successful deliveries"

To navigate, they use an array of cameras and some clever self-driving technology. Though they do have one added trick: if they reach an obstacle they can’t pass autonomously, such as a road that requires crossing, a human operator can connect to the cameras remotely, and safely pilot the "drone" to safety.

To date, the company claims to have made over 4 million successful deliveries. And what makes them work so well is they’ve eliminated the hard bit: flying.

So perhaps we’re not so far away from a drone delivery future. It’s just that the reality might be a little bit more down to earth.

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