ChainMail | Drone On

Flying deliveries are on the rise

ChainMail | Drone On

Drones have moved past the initial fad phase as a delivery service to consumers.

The technology is being tested more widely and appears sound. Ultimately it will be a question of economics: Do shoppers want their eggs dropped from the sky? Can airborne delivery become a profitable business?

In August, Walmart expanded its drone reach by announcing a partnership with Wing to start deliveries to customers of two stores in the Dallas area.

Wing, owned by Google’s parent, says it will fly “highly automated” drones at up to 65 mph to customer homes within six miles of those Walmarts.

Shoppers will use an app to order household goods, which will be packed, flown, and carefully dropped via tether to a location outside the home.

“Wing’s technology allows operators to oversee the system from a remote location, which means pilots won’t need to be stationed at stores or customer homes,” Wing CFO Shannon Nash said in a blog post. “The aircraft essentially fly themselves, so each operator is approved to safely oversee many drones at the same time.”

Over the past two years, Walmart says it has grown to offer drone delivery across seven states and 36 stores, making more than 10,000 safe deliveries in partnership with DroneUp and other firms. These are complex undertakings for both technical and regulatory reasons. Not everyone’s succeeding. Amazon’s been promising for a decade that it would introduce drone delivery, but its plans have fallen flat.  

Current FAA regulations require drone operators to keep their flying aircraft within sight, which limits their range. Wall Street firm ARK Invest says allowing drones to travel beyond visual line of sight would open opportunities. That’s especially so for food delivery, which has become expensive for consumers: “ARK’s research suggests that drones could deliver packages for far less than their human counterparts.”

There are reasons to remain skeptical about futuristic tech. We still don’t have personal jetpacks. But look at how much is happening with autonomous vehicles: Driverless trucks are on highways (with backup safety drivers) and driverless taxis are picking up fares in San Francisco.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi gave some insight on the pace of innovation in the high-tech delivery sector. “We’re working actively with players in trucking and delivery,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I think in five years, you’re going to have small commercial applications happening and it will become more real. I think in 10 to 15 years, self-driving is going to have a much larger impact in our business.”

As for delivery drones, sure, the sky’s the limit. But really, it will come down to demand.

Read the complete Issue 42 of ChainMail here.

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