Is Drone Delivery on the Horizon?

Drones are being tested as an alternative to the delivery system we’ve long trusted with our packages.

Written by Jacob Biba
Is Drone Delivery on the Horizon?
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Apr 23, 2024

Tens of millions of packages are delivered each day. And while many of the behind-the-scenes processes that shepherd our packages between warehouses and sorting centers have been automated, humans are often left navigating that last, and most visible, delivery mile.

What Is Drone Delivery?

Drone delivery is the method of using drones to complete deliveries in place of human drivers. After receiving customer orders, companies load products onto drones that fly autonomously or are controlled remotely to deliver packages to customers’ homes or other pickup locations.

But that could soon change, as startups and major corporations alike put autonomous drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — to the test, aiming to show the world that drone delivery is a safe and efficient alternative. When it comes to placing the things we want and need on, or near, our doorsteps, drones may soon replace the cars, trucks and humans we’ve long associated with package delivery.

 

How Does Drone Delivery Work?

Drone delivery begins by a customer submitting an order. Once the order is received, processed and packaged, it is loaded onto the drone. The drone then heads to its drop-off point and lowers the package to the ground, before returning to its home base.

How Drone Delivery Works

  1. An order is placed. 
  2. The order is received, processed and packaged.
  3. A drone is loaded before taking off to a specified drop-off point.
  4. The drone hovers above its destination and lowers the package to the ground, where it’s received by the customer.
  5. The drone returns to its hub or home base.

For example, drone delivery company Manna serves the Blanchardstown suburb of Dublin, Ireland. Customers can download the Manna app and place an order with one of the company’s grocery partners. According to Manna’s founder and CEO Bobby Healy, the order is received, bagged and taken to the store’s roof where a Manna team member loads the drone, which conducts its own self-check, weighing the order.

Prior to takeoff, customers drop a pin logging the GPS coordinates of a convenient and safe drop-off point, like a backyard, so Manna’s drone knows exactly where to place the delivery before arrival, using artificial intelligence and computer vision to navigate. Hovering 150 to 200 feet above the pinned location, the drone conducts a safety check using LIDAR and radar to ensure the area below is safe and no one is underneath.

Next, the drone descends to 60 feet, where it rechecks the drop-off area, and then, using a winch and biodegradable string, lowers the delivery down to a height of six inches, before slowing down to gently place the order on the ground.

Flytrex, a drone delivery company based in Tel Aviv, Israel, is conducting similar app-based trials in four U.S. towns — three in North Carolina and one in Texas. Yariv Bash, Flytrex’s founder and CEO, told Built In that his company is completing thousands of drone deliveries per month in these cities. According to Bash, drone delivery is proving to be a more affordable alternative to food delivery services that rely on humans.

“We’ve designed a system that’s really horrible for anything else besides delivering dinner to a family in the suburbs,” Bash said. “But for that specific thing? The system is amazing.”

 

How Is Drone Delivery Used?

Around 500,000 commercial drone deliveries occurred in the first half of 2023 alone. Here are some of the most common ways drone delivery is applied across different industries.
 

Food Delivery

Companies are exploring drone delivery as a way to send food and grocery orders to customers in the U.S. For example, DoorDash has partnered with Alphabet’s Wing to deliver Wendy’s orders via drones to customers in Christiansburg, Virginia. In addition, Walmart is expanding its drone delivery service to encompass three-fourths of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, shipping ingredients, snacks, beverages and more with the help of companies like Wing and Zipline. 

 

E-Commerce Delivery

Drones have been a major boon for e-commerce companies like Amazon, which uses drones to deliver orders in under an hour and is developing lighter and quieter drones. However, Amazon faces stiff competition from UPS since the company’s UPS Flight Forward division received approval to operate drones beyond the visual line of sight. Not to be outdone, Alphabet’s Wing is introducing heftier drones to transport larger packages. 

 

Medical Supplies Delivery

Seeking faster methods to get patients essential medications, health organizations are partnering with drone delivery companies as well. Memorial Hermann Health System is Houston’s first healthcare provider to use Zipline for making home deliveries. Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ Mass General Brigham is teaming up with Canadian drone company Draganfly to transport technical equipment and lab work in addition to medical supplies. 

 

Emergency Delivery

James Campbell, a professor of supply chain and analytics at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and other faculty members began working on drone delivery in Vanuatu using data from UNICEF, which had conducted drone delivery trials for routine childhood vaccines.

According to Campbell, healthcare workers in Vanuatu, a country made up of more than 80 islands, would travel by foot or boat each month, visiting remote villages and aid posts to vaccinate children.

“Drones seemed like an ideal solution because drones don’t need infrastructure,” Campbell said. “So, if you’re vaccinating children for measles and mumps, you’re not sending 50 kilos, you’re sending a small amount of product. And it needs to go fast because it needs to be refrigerated.”

 

Pros of Drone Delivery

The prospect of drone delivery becoming a widespread practice promises lasting benefits for businesses.
 

Faster Deliveries 

When it comes to food, household and other items from retailers like Amazon and Walmart, speed is a major driver behind the push for drone delivery. A main reason for this is that drones don’t have to contend with the typical obstacles that slow cars and delivery trucks down, like traffic, road construction, multiple stops or chatty neighbors.

 

Improved Sustainability

Drones could offer a more sustainable alternative compared to traditional delivery methods. In a 2022 Carnegie Mellon study, researchers found drones to give off less carbon emissions and consume less energy than delivery trucks and vans during last-mile deliveries. When it comes to making smaller deliveries over shorter distances, drones might be the best option for companies looking to scale back their carbon footprint

 

Wider Accessibility

Because drones can often reach areas that are hard to get to by ground travel, they could usher in an era of more accessible delivery. Drones have already left an impact on healthcare, transporting items like vaccines, medicine and supplies to communities in remote areas. However, the convenience of drone delivery could also prove to be a game-changer for those seeking everyday essentials in rural areas and small towns.

 

Increased Cost-Efficiency  

The capacity limits of drones could actually give smaller businesses an advantage. While larger brands and supermarkets may see more bulk orders, small businesses and retailers often make orders consisting of fewer and lighter items. Being able to complete these small orders more quickly can save lesser-known companies time and money while allowing them to carve out a niche space that remains elusive for big brands.   

“Some things just don’t make sense — like why use a two-ton car to deliver a two-pound burrito?” Campbell said. “That’s inherently inefficient. So, if you could do that with a drone, maybe that makes a lot of sense.”

 

Cons of Drone Delivery

While drone delivery offers a major lift for companies and customers, there are still many issues to consider.
 

Privacy Risks 

Navigating airspace and dropping off products requires drones to use computer vision, which captures visual data of a drone’s surroundings. Compiling data becomes more serious when drones are flying through urban areas and suburban neighborhoods, raising questions around data privacy. And if delivery drones are hijacked, they can easily be used for purposes like surveillance and malicious data collection. 

 

Safety Concerns 

In populated areas, drone crashes can always pose a risk to humans. But Sally Applin, a senior research anthropologist and consultant studying the effect of automation on social systems, notes in the 2016 book, The Future of Drone Use, the impact drones may have on wildlife as well. Birds especially will feel the effects of drones, though they’ve been known to fight back. Other animals may also react negatively to drones, creating dangerous situations for people. 

 

Regulatory Challenges

Drones have opened up a new frontier in delivery services, posing questions the Federal Aviation Administration has never faced. In response, the FAA has created a web of drone regulations to keep the technology in check, including a drone remote ID law that acts as another obstacle for drone companies to overcome. Although FAA approvals in 2023 have relaxed restrictions on certain companies, it’s still unclear how the increased use of drones could affect airspace and incite backlash from the FAA if drone delivery rollouts don’t go as planned. 

“Many systems will need to mesh to achieve delivery success,” Applin said. “In addition to privacy and security issues, much of what is being considered by companies with delivery drone ‘dreams’ are imagined as individual scenarios that do not take an aggregate of drones within public space into consideration.”

 

Practical Limitations 

There are issues surrounding whether or not drone delivery is actually an efficient, or even viable, alternative given our current system. Inclement weather conditions like heavy rain and wind could make drones a less reliable delivery option. In addition, having an army of drones complete a group of single orders compared to one delivery truck handling these orders may be much less effective.  

 

The Future of Drone Delivery

There’s hope drones will soon play a bigger role in package deliveries. Manna expanded its drone delivery services to 100,000 people in Ireland and kicked off a small pilot program in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Healy sees even greater adoption of drone delivery soon, with every major suburb in Europe having drone delivery in the next three years, with the United States not far behind. “And that’s me being conservative,” Healy said, “because I actually think it could be sooner.”

Eventually, Healy sees drone delivery services becoming subscription-based — much like Amazon Prime — with consumers having unlimited drone deliveries each month, which Healy predicts will change consumer shopping habits. “They’re going to order in a far more granular way,” Healy said, meaning people will still shop for large items at the supermarket, while ordering small, perishable items, like meat and vegetables, as needed.

“For that to be viable, which we want, we want to be able to bring transaction costs right down to the floor,” Healy said. “And the nice thing about drones, [with] the marginal cost of delivery because there’s no human involved, you can do that.”

 

U.S. Regulation Is an Obstacle to Adoption

While regulators in Europe have provided drone delivery companies a regulatory framework to operate within, the same can’t be said for the U.S. 

“European governments want drone delivery to happen, so there’s a wide-open door for any company that wants to make progress in Europe,” Healy said. “And then in the United States, it’s not like that. There’s still a path to go. It’s still unclear when scaled delivery will be allowed to happen and under what systems it will happen.”

In 2013, Amazon’s founder and then-CEO Jeff Bezos, announced that 30-minute drone deliveries were just a few years away. The following year, Amazon, in a request to the Federal Aviation Administration to test their drones near the company’s office in Seattle, wrote, “one day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.”

But it wasn’t until 2022 that a company, Matternet, which has partnered with UPS to deliver Covid vaccines in North Carolina, finally received Type Certification from the FAA, an important step in the design approval process drone delivery companies must achieve to scale their operations if they ever want drones to be as ubiquitous as mail trucks.

 

Is the Public Ready for Drone Delivery?

Another factor is public acceptance. While a Northwestern University study found that consumers were more likely to use drone delivery if the delivery time and price decreased enough, there’s still public resistance to drones in general. 

Still, Bash believes companies will start being granted approval for national-scale operations by 2024, and drone delivery will become the norm in many suburbs, with speed, cost and other benefits proving attractive to consumers. 

But Campbell believes more widespread drone delivery won’t arrive until 2027 at the earliest, and that a viable future will hinge on consumer demand. “I don’t know if we’re going to have it,” he said. “On the other hand, when I look at technology, we, as a society, very rarely turn down technologies.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Drone delivery refers to last-mile deliveries performed by drones instead of human drivers. When customers submit orders, companies load the selected items onto drones. These drones can then fly autonomously to deliver packages to customers’ homes or leave them at a drop-off point for customers to pick up. 

Companies like Amazon, Wing, and Zipline have been testing drone deliveries in specific communities or countries outside the U.S. However, these companies are expected to expand drone deliveries in the U.S. in 2024, with an initial focus on suburban neighborhoods.

Drone deliveries could pose safety risks to wildlife like birds, endanger humans in the event of crashes and potentially infringe on privacy rights by collecting visual data. In addition, drone delivery may prove to be an inefficient and impractical method for delivering single-item orders to hundreds of customers.

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