Just after midnight on January 1, 1913, 11 pounds of apples were delivered to newly elected President Woodrow Wilson at his home in New Jersey, where he was finishing out his term as the state’s governor. It was the first package delivered by the United States Post Office Department, sparking nationwide excitement and wonder around delivery that would test the capabilities of mail carriers in creative, and somewhat disturbing, ways.
During that first week alone, the department — now known as the U.S. Postal Service — handled more than 4 million packages, with mail carriers delivering a beef roast in Atlanta, a roasted chicken in Tacoma, a pitchfork in Birmingham. It wasn’t long before clever parents were slapping stamps on winter coats and shipping children to grandparents and other relatives. (The practice was quickly banned, though some parents were still able to slip kids through the cracks — one mother in Florida paid 15 cents in postage to ship her six-year-old daughter to the child’s father in Virginia.)
How Drone Delivery Works
- An order is placed.
- The order is received, processed and packaged.
- A drone is loaded before taking off to a specified drop-off point.
- The drone hovers above its destination and lowers the package to the ground, where it’s received by the customer.
- The drone returns to its hub or home base.
Now, more than 100 years later, tens of millions of packages are delivered each day by mail carriers and delivery drivers working for UPS, FedEx, Amazon and other services and apps like InstaCart, DoorDash and UberEats. 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.
But that could soon change. Startups and major corporations alike are putting 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?
Like most deliveries, drone delivery begins by someone, somewhere wanting or needing something they’re unable, or unwilling, to pick up themselves. 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.
Today, customers living in Dublin, Ireland, where the drone delivery company Manna is conducting a pilot program serving 35,000 people, can download the Manna app and place an order — say a dozen eggs and some fresh fruit — with one of the company’s partners, like the European grocery chain Tesco.
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 will load 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 6 inches — a process that takes approximately 6 seconds, according to Healy — before slowing down to gently place the order on the ground.
“There’s no rocket science to this,” Healy said.
“We’ve designed a system that’s really horrible for anything else besides delivering dinner to a family in the suburbs ... But for that specific thing? The system is amazing.”
Flytrex, a drone delivery company based in Tel Aviv, Israel, is conducting similar app-based trials in the United States — in four towns in North Carolina and one in Texas. Yariv Bash, Flytrex’s founder and CEO, told Built In his company, which has partnered with restaurants like Chili’s and Jersey Mike’s, 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 DoorDash and other food delivery services that rely on humans, and food is arriving hotter.
“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?
While Manna and Flytrex are putting drone delivery of food and other retail and grocery items to the test, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), with its drone delivery division, Wing, Amazon and UPS are all competing in the airspace, too. According to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey, nearly 1.5 million drone deliveries are expected to be completed this year globally, from meals to medical supplies, where drone delivery has shown promise in remote, hard-to-reach areas.
James Campbell, a professor of supply chain and analytics at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, started studying drones five years ago, he said, honing in on the impact drone delivery could have on global health.
Before the pandemic, Campbell 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. About 20 percent of children in Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific, aren’t up to date on their vaccines. “We know how to save lives,” Campbell said. “We have the vaccines — it’s just a question of logistics. How do you get them to the remote locations where these people live?”
“Drones seemed like an ideal solution because drones don’t need infrastructure.”
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.”
Campbell, who specializes in conducting mathematical modeling for optimization of supply chain systems, and his colleagues looked at ways to optimize vaccine delivery by studying the best ways to utilize various types of transportation. “That’s where we come in, building these models that say, ‘When should you use planes? When should you use boats? When do you walk? When do you use a truck, if there is a truck?’” Campbell said. “Then how do you orchestrate this whole system so you get viable vaccines out to these very remote sites every month?”
With drone delivery of vaccines in Vanuatu, the results were positive, Campbell said.
“But if it doesn’t make business sense, you’re not going to do it,” Campbell said. “And business sense is a tricky issue in global health because what’s a child’s life worth? Well, it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on that.”
Pros and Cons of Drone Delivery
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, as drones, once launched, don’t have to contend with the typical obstacles that slow cars and delivery trucks down, like traffic, multiple stops or chatty neighbors.
Though noise is often cited as one potential drawback to drones, they are quieter than delivery trucks and require much less energy and emit less emissions. One recent study found that drones produced 84 percent fewer greenhouse gasses per package compared to diesel trucks and used 94 percent less energy, too.
But much of the success that’s occurring in pilot programs and tests are essentially happening in vacuums. No one really knows for certain what the future of drone delivery will look like and whether it will actually work when scaled across the United States and Europe.
“Many systems will need to mesh to achieve delivery success,” Sally Applin, a senior research anthropologist and consultant studying the effect of automation on social systems, writes in the 2016 book, The Future of Drone Use. “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.”
In the book, which features contributions from several scholars and researchers who have studied the broader implications of expanded drone use, Applin writes about many of the potential consequences and concerns drone delivery could harbor in urban environments, from on-board cameras that could infringe on privacy, to safety risks if a drone were to fail and plummet to the ground.
“Think of us as the mule and the mule doesn’t understand the person it’s carrying the product for.”
Healy told Built In Manna does not collect any data when making deliveries. “We’re not interested in customer data,” he said. “Think of us as the mule and the mule doesn’t understand the person it’s carrying the product for.”
On safety, Healy said a parachute will deploy during a total system malfunction to bring it down to the ground safely. Flytrex also uses parachutes, according to their website. (Delivery trucks, too, pose a tremendous safety risk especially in neighborhoods where children are playing and potentially distracted drivers and workers are pushed to their limits in extreme conditions.)
But Applin also notes the impact drones may have on wildlife, in addition to humans, and the need for even further research. Birds especially will feel the effects of drones, though they’ve been known to fight back. She also writes that by looking at how other animals have reacted to drones entering their habitat — one study found that American black bears exhibited a stress response to drones — researchers may have a better understanding of how humans will respond to expanded drone use where they work and live.
Is Drone Delivery Really a Viable Replacement?
On top of concerns in the public sphere Applin writes about, there are issues surrounding whether or not drone delivery is actually an efficient, or even viable, alternative given our current system.
“In this country we have an incredible road system,” Campbell said. “We spent 100 years building roads, helping trucks. So you can get almost anywhere fairly quickly by truck or car. And that makes it much harder for drones because the drones now have to compete against something that’s been fine-tuned and optimized in practice for years.”
Others like Thomas Black, a Bloomberg opinion writer covering logistics and manufacturing, believe drone delivery will never be more than a “niche” service used for items that “command a price premium for speed,” like those required in healthcare.
“The biggest hurdle is that drones will be making point-to-point deliveries, which is the quickest but most inefficient way to take packages to homes or businesses,” Black writes in a column published in September regarding the entry into the market by Amazon, Walmart and others. “The drone will travel out and back from a warehouse to deliver one item. This may create a premium market for emergency deliveries, but it would take a small army of drones to service the 150 to 200 packages that just one truck normally takes on a route.”
Black also notes the impact that weather conditions like heavy wind may have on drone delivery capability and the fact that consumers will have to get used to no longer finding packages conveniently on their doorsteps.
The Future of Drone Delivery
Last year, according to a report from shipping company Pitney Bowes, 59 million packages were shipped each day through USPS, FedEx, UPS and Amazon in the United States, which doesn’t include all the burritos, sushi, toilet paper and other household items delivered by the likes of DoorDash, UberEats and Instacart.
But there’s hope drones will one day handle delivery of those packages. Manna will expand their drone delivery services to 100,000 people in Ireland and kick off a small pilot program serving 10,000 people in the United States. 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.
“And in order for that to work, 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.”
For Campbell, however, hybrid delivery, which would utilize both trucks with a human delivery person for large items, and drones deployed from those trucks to deliver smaller items at the same time, would also make sense from an efficiency standpoint.
U.S. Regulation Is an Obstacle to Adoption
But regulation in the United States is one hurdle to widespread adoption, according to Healy. Whereas regulators in Europe have provided drone delivery companies like Manna a regulatory framework to operate within — drone delivery companies were granted permission to fly over populated areas at the end of 2020 — the same can’t be said for the United States. “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 there.”
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 last month 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.
Like Healy, McKinsey’s analysts believe regulation will be a key factor moving forward.
“Regulations dictate the type of operations allowed, including parameters related to geographic areas and airspace, times of day, and the conditions required for flight,” analysts wrote in their report. “All of these factors can have a large impact on costs for drones, and the guidelines could potentially increase costs and delay at-scale operations.”
Is the Public Ready for Drone Delivery?
Another factor is public acceptance, which according to a survey McKinsey conducted, showed that most people would utilize drone delivery if it were available, with grocery and food delivery being the most desired items delivered by drone, though cost will be a major consideration.
“Some things just don’t make sense — like why use a 2-ton car to deliver a 2-pound burrito? ... That’s inherently inefficient. So, if you could do that with a drone, maybe that makes a lot of sense.”
Bash believes companies will start being granted approval for national scale operations in the next year or two, and drone delivery will become the norm in many suburbs, an area Flytrex and Manna are focused on, with speed, cost and other benefits proving attractive to consumers.
“Once you go to drone deliveries, you get it faster, and in a much more affordable way,” Bash said.
But Campbell believes more widespread drone delivery is another five to eight years away, 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.”
And it’s difficult to ignore the efficiency of drone delivery, at least in theory, especially when it comes to delivering food in suburban markets, like what Manna and Flytrex are focusing on.
“Some things just don’t make sense — like why use a 2-ton car to deliver a 2-pound burrito?” Campbell said. “That’s inherently inefficient. So, if you could do that with a drone, maybe that makes a lot of sense.”
But maybe the biggest hurdle to drone delivery, especially in the United States, is out performing our current system, which we’ve been working on since those 11 pounds of apples were first delivered to Woodrow Wilson.