Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… a drone with a package attached to it?
Yes, drone delivery does exist. Drone delivery systems have been in use in African countries like Tanzania and Rwanda to deliver medicines and blood supplies to remote areas. Drone technology is advancing at an incredible rate and currently, drones manufactured by Amazon can carry 2 kilograms which accounts for 90% of the products they sell.
On-demand delivery in the United States may be closer than you think, but before you start seeing clouds of autonomous drones delivering our packages, they have a number of issues to work out before they hit the mainstream.
Humans have been delivering packages for centuries and despite the years of trial and error, there still seems to be an awful lot of errors. The issue with drone deliveries seems to be that the packages don’t have a safe landing area. They can’t exactly open mailboxes, porches tend to be covered, back yards tend to have dogs in them. Some companies have devised a method of parachute delivery but this is unreliable and dependent on weather conditions. Amazon has suggested that homes and buildings have a drone delivery pad. DHL’s answer is to have the drones deliver to a secure “smart locker” and once the delivery is made the recipient is sent a special code to unlock it.
Once the landing issue has been sorted out, there is the question of security. Since the drones will be traveling autonomously, the computer system that controls them will need to be impervious to hackers to not only prevent theft, but a drone controlled by a hacker poses a threat to the property, people, and other aircraft. And what happens when a malfunctioning drone falls from the sky?
Then there is the question of airspace. The skies above urban areas are already congested with commercial aircraft and helicopters that there might not be enough room up there for hundreds or even thousands of delivery drones. In order for drones to really be the low-cost alternative to hand delivery companies will need to prove that these autonomous drones won’t endanger people or property.
And this brings up another legal grey area, who exactly owns the airspace above your home? If a drone needs to fly at least 400 feet in order to be able to navigate safely, are they trespassing if they fly over your home? According to the FAA, they have the responsibility for “navigable airspace” which is defined by commercial and general aviation lowest altitude limit of 500 feet from the ground. So is it legal for your neighbor to fly their drone 50 feet above your home? This is a legal contradiction that lawmakers have only begun to challenge.
What would you think if your next pizza is delivered by a robot rather than an actual person? Will anyone approve of the noise and thousands of little robots flying through the sky? This might be the hardest issue to resolve.
The future is closer than you might think
Autonomous drones have the potential to completely change how we view deliveries and how we transport items from one place to another. But this budding technology has issues that range far beyond practicality that can only be resolved through common sense, and controlled conditions.