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Here’s Why Drone Delivery Won’t Be Reality Any Time Soon

4 minute read

Today, it’s possible to order almost any product online and receive it the next day with a press of a button. Now, companies like Amazon and Google are taking that idea one step further, experimenting with airborne drones to deliver parcels to customers’ doorsteps mere hours after they make a purchase.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, wants to begin delivering packages via drones to consumers by 2017. Amazon has been vocal about its plans for drone delivery, which the company calls Amazon Prime Air. It claims Prime Air will “safely get packages into consumers’ hands in 30 minutes or less.” Walmart recently applied to U.S. regulators for permission to test drones for home delivery, too.

The promise of receiving items minutes after they’re ordered is enticing. But there are several roadblocks to navigate before that world becomes a reality. The biggest hurdle is regulation — the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees American airspace, has been slow to establish clear-cut rules regarding commercial drone use and delivery. The FAA expects to issue more concrete rules in the coming months, but that process has been delayed several times in the past.

That doesn’t mean we’ll never get our next Amazon Prime order delivered by a drone. “It will probably happen, but there are sizable obstacles to overcome,” says David Vanderhoof, the co-host of UAV Digest, a weekly podcast covering unmanned aerial vehicle systems.

One big challenge is keeping the skies safe. Amazon has proposed a plan that would designate certain airspace for low- and high-speed drones. But drones are also banned from flying within five miles of an airport unless special permission is granted. That could be troublesome for shoppers who live near airports and want same-day delivery — much of New York City, for instance, is considered verboten for drone traffic under this rule.

Then there’s the question of technology. Vanderhoof noted that lithium ion batteries, a variation of which power some consumer drones, such as the popular DJI Phantom, may not provide enough power for the aircraft to haul heavy packages over long distances. “If you have a 30-minute lifespan, you’re only going to get about 20 minutes of flying,” he says. “Those are the kinds of things we need to be thinking about.”

Drone Country: See America From Above

House boats appear next to the shoreline of Bidwell Canyon on Lake Oroville in Northern California on November 25, 2014. Lake Oroville is California's second largest reservoir, and is currently 70% empty as a result of the state's severe drought.Tomas van Houtryve—VII
Campers appear in an RV park in Fernley, Nevada on November 25, 2014. The nearby Amazon Fulfillment Center recruits people living out of RVs to work on the floor of their warehouse during peak holiday shipping season. Many of the campers are senior citizens whose homes or savings were wiped out by the 2008 economic crisis.Tomas van Houtryve—VII
A parking lot for an Amazon fulfillment center appears in New Jersey on November 11, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
A residential apartment complex appears in Poughkeepsie, New York on November 9, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
Vacation homes appear on the New Jersey Shore on November 11, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
An empty drive-in movie theater appears in Poughkeepsie, New York on November 9, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
A farm house and field appear outside Trenton, New Jersey on November 11, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
Cows gather for water and alfalfa distributed by a rancher in a drought-devastated pasture in Merced County, California on November 26, 2014. As with many areas of the Central Valley of California, these cows would not be able to survive without this kind of supplemental nutrition.Tomas van Houtryve—VII
A run-down neighborhood appears in North Camden, New Jersey on November 23, 2014. In 2012, the FBI ranked Camden as having the most violent crime per capita of any American city with a population of over 50,000. The local police installed millions of dollars of surveillance equipment in residential neighborhoods, including cameras and microphones that detect the exact location of gunshots.Tomas van Houtryve—VII
Horse stalls appear near Fernley, Nevada on November 24, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII
A swamp appears near Brookfield, Connecticut on November 8, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
Beachfront vacation units appear on Cape Cod, Massachusetts on Nov. 7, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
The USS New Jersey, a decommissioned battleship, appears on the Delaware river off Camden, New Jersey on November 23, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII
A college campus appears in Poughkeepsie, New York on November 9, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
Lacrosse players warm up before practice in Clark County, Nevada on January 20, 2014. The nearby Creech Air Force is the main command center for overseas drone strikes.Tomas van Houtryve—VII/Pulitzer Center
Wiggins Park Marina appears in Camden, New Jersey on November 23, 2014.Tomas van Houtryve—VII

It’s unclear how drone delivers could change the shopping experience. While it’s too early to know exactly how these same-day delivery programs will work, it seems plausible to think near-instant delivery would be priced differently than standard shipping. Vanderhoof speculates that companies like Google and Amazon could offer a trial version that offers shipping via drone for free or at a discount while the system is in its early stages.

“Eventually if the technology matures, the prices will go down, and maybe in the late 21st century drone delivery will be as common as FedEx or UPS,” he says. “That’s being very optimistic.”

Brian Kilcourse, managing partner at Retail Systems Research, agreed that a try-before-you-buy system for drone delivery could be feasible. But then these companies would have to find a price that customers are willing to spend for rapid delivery. “So that’s the challenge,” says Kilcourse. “Offer a taste-and-try opportunity and then [these companies] introduce a fee.”

But by far the biggest thing standing in the way of drone deliveries is this: Customers might not actually want it.

“All of it sounds new and exciting, but the question hasn’t been answered,” says Kilcourse. “Do consumers really need that? Is it a surprise to you that you might need a new pair of shoes for the winter? It’s important to remember that most of the purchases we make every day, most of them are routine . . . I’m not too sure that the driving use case has really been defined, and I’m not at all clear that consumers would pay for the privilege.”

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