Drone Delivery

Let me be clear:  I think it’s flagrant fantasy to imagine that Amazon is going to be delivering anything by drone any time in the next ten years.  Amazon’s announcement was a PR stunt meant to put their name in front of a lot of people on Cyber Monday and on into the Christmas shopping season.

That said, it’s fun to think about.  So let’s review why it’s stupid, and how the world would work if it weren’t stupid.

Here are the actual reasons why I don’t think you can do it:

  • Payload.  Quadcopters (or whatever: hexcopters, octocopters) are amazingly nimble, cool little devices.  Emphasis on “little.”  A payload of like 2kg is generous for forward flight, much less extensive forward flight at long ranges and in bad conditions.  There just aren’t that many things you can actually deliver this way.
  • Weather.  These kind of miniature drones are very sensitive to weather.  They become considerably more difficult to control in very mild breezes: a sudden gust of wind when one of them was carrying the sail which is a cardboard box would blow them into buildings, trees, and power-lines post-haste.
  • Expense.  What are these small-payload items that you really want to pay a premium to receive in 30 minutes rather than a day or two?  It’d be one thing if they could carry groceries, but they won’t be able to (too heavy).

But let’s wave those all away, and also wave away “the US government actually decides to allow this.”  We’re in a world in which it is both technically and legally possible to deliver anything up to about 5kg by drone.  What does that world look like?

A bunch of commentators have said, “Well, where would they deliver the packages?  You might not have a front yard!”  That strikes me as a non-issue.  If you want to take this kind of delivery, you’ll create and mark a space for the delivery to happen.  Might be on your roof or your balcony in some cases.  That’d be kind of cool — little helipads everywhere for the physical infrastructure.

If the drones coincide with a future of driverless cars (about which my feelings are on record), they become at least a little more plausible, with a driverless truck providing a mobile base for the drones, which then do last quarter-mile delivery (this gets around some but not all of the payload problems).

This would be another hit against 3D printing as a home technology (why bother to maintain a limited home 3D printer when you could get your item delivered by drone instead?), but would possibly have synergy with an Amazon “warehouse” that was itself a micro-manufacturing facility (after all, this technology is only useful if there is already stock of your item at a fairly local warehouse).

Not to be too taco-copter here, but ultra-fresh foods would be natural targets for this kind of technology.  Get sushi-grade fish (or uni!) at your home, just an hour or two off the boat!

Drones would be too loud and too unsafe to be flying at 10 to 20m off the ground: they probably want to stay at 40m or higher to avoid being a nuisance and also to avoid too many obstacles and hazards of their flight path.  Warehouses might be hilarious towers that spew drones from the top, to avoid the expense of helicoptering the packages up to 40m, and consequent range limitations (probably not if there are driverless cars as well).


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