Octocopter Update: A Decade of Drones

Betsy Stewart

They resembled giant, flying tarantulas. Or something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Those were the first impressions of the news producers who saw an early drone delivery vehicle. These delivery drones were the big reveal in the context of a Jeff Bezos interview with 60 Minutes in 2013 – even the host did not know what he was about to see. The questions posed by CBS News a decade ago are still being answered: What do you think of Amazon Prime Air? Can Bezos bring his vision of octocopter package delivery to life -- and can he do it safely?

A decade later, the short answer is yes. At least in Lockeford, CA and College Station, TX. "The drone will fly to the designated delivery location, descend to the customer's backyard, and hover at a safe height," Amazon said. "It will then safely release the package and rise back up to altitude." Although using algorithms to fly autonomously, humans are accompanying these initial deliveries. Walmart had success and is looking to the skies for 2023. The most popular items delivered by their DroneUp drones are: cookies and cream ice cream, a 2lb bag of lemons, rotisserie chicken, Red Bull, and Bounty paper towels. 

FAA regulations are no small hurdle. Original requirements included flight and medical training for drone operators. Drones still cannot fly over schools, power plants, and “must remain at least 100 ft. laterally from any person during all phases of flight.” More details – and the recent FAA decision in response to an Amazon filing – are reviewed by The Verge. “The FAA doesn’t exactly hand out licenses to operate autonomous drones and drone delivery services. It creates specific exemptions to the United States’ strict airspace regulations, each with a long list of conditions that companies must follow.” Caution seems prudent: “There were five crashes in four months at Amazon’s testing facilities in Oregon, and one crash ignited a 25-acre brush fire.”

Can drones make a positive environmental impact and be cost competitive? McKinsey sums it up nicely: “Companies will be much more likely to reach their emissions goals if they do not have to deliver a one-pound burrito with a two-ton vehicle.” For now, labor costs associated with 1:1 drone-watched deliveries make it expensive. The cost to deliver one package by drone with an observer (20 drones per observer) is equivalent to an electric van with one driver delivering 100 packages. Emissions are lowest for an electric car delivery.

Ok, it’s possible. Is it what we want? In general, what is the point of drone delivery? Are the savings worth the investment for businesses? Is any expediency worth the cost to society? Won’t these things clog up the horizon and make noise? (Is it odd to imagine people shooting them out of the sky?) What about delivery people? A 1980s cartoon had this figured out: just build a Transformer. (A kind one!) Fly-land-transform. Drive-arrive-transform. Walk-deliver-transform.

As far as the environment and expediency, there are potential upsides: fewer cars equates to fewer carbon emissions and less traffic; In the UK, chemotherapy drugs – which have a shorter shelf-life – are flown from the pharmacy to the hospital and then distributed. In London, this specific use case works. But the scenarios that might most benefit may be the hardest to solve. Rural areas make a lot of sense for this delivery type, but may never be cost effective to implement.

Drone classification types include mini, hobby, and professional with varying weight and usage capabilities. A Norwegian drone (The Griff 300) can carry up to 500 pounds! It’s mostly used for search and rescue scenarios and could conceivably carry a person as payload. As far as home-dropped deliveries, weight and dimensional limitations come into play. Walmart drones can accommodate a maximum 10 pound load, Amazon’s up to 5 pounds (85% or orders fall within this range). The current Amazon delivery drone is 5.5 feet in diameter and weighs nearly 90 pounds. And what about the weather? So far it seems sunny days are a requirement. Aiming for launch in 2024, Amazon indicates their next model will be smaller, 25% less noisy, and able to fly in light rain.

Autonomous vehicles (AV) are another key aspect of non-human delivery. Everyone from Chick-Fil-A to FedEx are in on this conversation. Phrases like “pedestrian-protecting front end” will enter our vernacular. For restaurants and businesses focused on local deliveries, autonomous vehicles (more so than driverless cars) are a crucial opportunity to save labor costs and fulfill customer expectations for faster deliveries, within hours or even minutes. Nuro (partnering with Dominos), Amazon-owned Zoox, and Kiwibot (GrubHub goes to college) are on their way. While having a robot bring you a cup of coffee sounds cool, novelty tends to wear off and an AV traffic jam is not too hard to fathom. Some considerations here: How will this affect traffic, cyclists, and sidewalk access? How can we ensure safe and easy human mobility? Is a refreshed view on urban planning necessary?

In 2020, 20.2 billion retail packages were delivered. This number is expected to surpass the 30 billion mark by 2026. Many people say it’s all about solving for that last mile and if consumers want direct-to-fridge, it will be. Randy Kohl, Head of Marketing at WTC&T offers this perspective: “The gap between new technologies and consumer adoption / commercial viability is wide. We're 10 years into the drone delivery age and still in Beta testing in most places. The same will be true for autonomous cars. Innovation is great but the "tech hype cycle" doesn't let the truth get in the way of a good story. New tech takes time to mature and new forms of delivery are a perfect case in point.” What will the next decade bring? Here we go!