With many countries still under lockdown and the need for social distancing unlikely to disappear soon, interest in delivery drones, both airborne and ground-based, has surged. A few startups that saw themselves as a community of pioneers just a few months ago are now fierce competitors, says Vincent Talon, co-founder of TwinswHeel, a French firm with booming orders for its rolling delivery “droids”. But enthusiasm alone is not enough. Drone companies and their customers must overcome a range of concerns about the technology and find the right partners and allies to enable wider adoption. So what lessons can be learned from those on the drone-delivery front line?

  • This isn’t just about outdoor delivery. Ground robots find it easiest to navigate in highly “structured” environments like factories and hospitals. And they don’t have to be on the move all day to be valuable. Sending a delivery robot can be cheaper than sending skilled workers to fetch tools and parts, especially if that pauses production, says Mr Talon, whose firm sells delivery robots to manufacturers.
  • But delivery in cities is the big prize. The desire for no-contact deliveries may be driving demand today, but urbanisation and ageing societies will strengthen the case for automated deliveries in the years to come, says Qi Kong, head of autonomous driving at China’s JD Logistics. In the meantime, semi-structured environments (such as business parks or university campuses) are popular testing grounds. Six-wheeled drones made by Starship, an Estonian startup, deliver take-away food and coffee on several American campuses, with plans to expand to 100 by summer 2021. Starship drones also deliver groceries in Washington, DC and Milton Keynes, England.
  • Demand has increased “exponentially” since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Starship’s boss, Ryan Tuohy. Other drone firms concur: flying drones operated by Google’s sister company, Wing, are now performing 1,000 deliveries a week, an eight-fold increase since February, says Jonathan Bass, the firm’s head of communications. Wing drones are operating in Virginia, in Helsinki and in the Australian cities of Canberra and Logan.

Both Starship and Wing have been testing their delivery drones for a couple of years. They and other firms are well aware of the need to tread carefully, so that a range of concerns about drones can be gradually overcome. Notably, drones must demonstrate that they are:

  • Not dangerous or annoying. Wing’s aerial drones are mostly made of foam, and weigh about the same as a domestic cat, says Mr Bass. Delivery by drone is cleaner and safer, he argues, than using a car or truck. After the firm redesigned its drones to change the pitch of their electric rotors, complaints about noise fell to almost nil.
  • Not scary or creepy. Starship’s cute, picnic-basket-sized robots roll at walking speed on pavements, avoiding pedestrians and stopping when in doubt. (A remote operator, overseeing multiple robots, can assist when necessary.) The robots greet customers when arriving to make a delivery, and say “have a nice day” when departing. Drone firms need to “strike the right balance between utility and unobtrusiveness,” notes Mr Tuohy.
  • Not job killers. To win over France’s SNCF, a railway firm with strong unions and a penchant for striking, TwinswHeel initially configured its robots to follow factory workers while carrying their kit. Only after a year were the robots made autonomous. Mr Talon reckons rejection would have otherwise been quick. Autonomous deliveries can be introduced faster where workers are accustomed to automation. At a Renault car factory near Paris, TwinswHeel pulled off the same trick in several weeks.
  • Not going to be stolen. People will not order meals or groceries if they worry that someone will steal them. Wing drones hover to lower packages to their recipients at an agreed spot. Customers receiving a delivery via a Starship robot are sent an alert when it arrives that lets them unlock it. The robots also have a built-in alarm and camera system, and a GPS tracker.

With tens of thousands of deliveries under their belts, drone startups are confident that the technology works. The main hurdle to expansion is regulatory approval. Oversight of drones cuts across ministries of transport, environment, and the interior, as well as city halls and police and fire departments. Navigating this regulatory maze is tricky, but wheels are turning.

  • The pandemic is encouraging regulators to move more quickly, so now is the time to push for approvals, says Ryu Kentaro, head of delivery robotics at ZMP, a Japanese robot-maker. Its robots already operate within office buildings, and the firm reckons it will soon have permits to test street deliveries in Tokyo. Chinese firms are hiring locals in Europe and America to navigate bureaucracies and win approvals.
  • Rules for aerial drones are coming into focus, with regulators allowing flights at night, and beyond line-of-sight, on a per-project basis in several countries. Drones from Matternet, an American firm, fly beyond line-of-sight to deliver packages for Swiss Post. Zipline, another American firm, operates drones that deliver medical supplies in Ghana and Rwanda. And Wing won approval to operate as a “certified air carrier” in America last October. “I think you’ll see some of those approvals accelerate in the future,” says Mr Bass.
  • Emphasising public benefit can help win over regulators, says Stuart Ginn of WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. Working with Matternet and UPS, the hospital has been flying medical samples to a nearby lab. It’s “almost like teleportation”, says Mr Ginn.

What does all this mean for firms interested in getting involved with drone delivery?

  • Drone firms are looking for partners as they expand their operations around the world, but want different partners in different places. “Every community is slightly different in what they want delivered,” says Mr Bass. “And that drives our discussions with partners.” Drone firms are particularly keen to partner with firms that can help them secure permits and approvals for operation in new areas.
  • This isn’t just for big companies. Starship delivers coffees from Starbucks, and Wing has partnerships with Walgreens and FedEx. But Wing has also partnered with a gift store, a coffee shop, a cafe and a local restaurant in Virginia, and with a coffee shop, a patisserie and a sporting-goods store in Australia. Cheap, fast dispatches by drone could provide an opportunity for small, local businesses that might never have considered offering delivery.
  • There are many possible business models. Some firms will want to build their own drones (Amazon is building its own aerial drones, and acquired Dispatch, an American startup that had cloned Starship’s robots). Others will want to buy drones to operate themselves, or partner closely with a drone operator. Some firms will just want to pay a drone-logistics provider by the delivery. “We’re open to different models,” says Mr Bass.

Drone delivery is a field that has long been associated with hype and stunts. Some outfits will fly a burrito a short distance in perfect weather and issue a press release about their “Kitty Hawk moment”, says Justin Hamilton of Zipline. When Amazon unveiled its plans for delivery drones in 2013, many people thought it was kidding. But since then the technology has improved, regulations have been clarified—and now the coronavirus pandemic has provided a new rationale. For some customers, delivery drones have already arrived.

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