Opinion: The future of delivery drones

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Delivery drones first emerged as a major national discussion back when Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, revealed that Amazon was working toward them five years ago. Since then, a vigorous national debate has been prompted on the topic typically when advances have been made on making Bezos’ pitch a reality.

Indeed, as time has progressed, more and more companies have begun exploring delivery drones for themselves – demonstrating that Silicon Valley, at least, is solidly behind the idea. The promises of delivery drones are undoubtedly tempting.

In Bezos’ pitch for them, he emphasized the convenience of drones, extolling how it could make it possible to order products and get them within as short a time frame as 30 minutes.

Now, I am as tempted by the promise of 30 minute delivery from Amazon as anyone else, but with such a sweeping change as delivery drones promise, it is incumbent to look at the potential consequences and trade-offs involved before embracing them wholeheartedly.

To begin with logistical challenges,  if delivery drones become a norm, one must wonder where they will all be stored and charged. Currently, the drones Amazon is testing have a range of about two miles, and they store them at beehive-like warehouses or hangars.

Logically, this presents two immediate problems. If companies do not find some way to extend radius, then from a fiscal standpoint, establishing delivery drones across the United States, especially in rural areas, seems unpractical and cost-prohibitive.

Second, even if the range was improved, the issue of maneuverability, especially near the hangars, is still worrisome. If these hangars become nexuses for potentially hundreds of drones in urban areas, then the density of traffic in the airspace around the hangar would be ripe for collisions. To reduce the odds of collisions just within that space, incredibly sophisticated protocols would have to be designed, thus raising the cost to manufacture these drones en masse.

Even if the research and development (R&D) departments of companies could work out a way to extend radius and ensure that these drones don’t crash into one another in the airspace around the hangar, there is still the issue that the air is filled with other obstacles.

These drones are going to be operating in the low altitude. The low altitude is filled with objects already. Trees extend into it, as do buildings. Power lines are usually located in it, and birds fly there already.

In the scenario where drones become widespread as well,  the low altitude will be filled with drones from various companies. Designing protocols that will prevent drones from the same company from running into one another is a complicated enough problem, but when all the obstacles of the low altitude, especially other drones, are factored in, it becomes worse by an order of magnitude, thus raising the development cost.

Then there is the issue of people. Factoring them into the equation makes the future of delivery drones even less viable. Acknowledging the caprices of human nature, if delivery drones become widespread in the United States, undoubtedly some people will try to shoot them down. Others will likely try to steal the drones, given that they are expensive pieces of technology that they may then be able to sell at a lucrative price.

By the time it may be feasible for all these conditions, each drone may cost $50,000, which is a low estimate. That is still a hefty price tag for companies to pay every time a drone is downed or stolen.

Even without going into issues such as environmental concerns, noise pollution and economic practicality versus delivery trucks, there are significant concerns about the development of delivery drones, both for consumers and for the companies themselves.

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