Where Are The Delivery Drones?

Jeff Bezos said Amazon drones would be bringing toothpaste and cat food to Americans’ homes within four or five years. That was about nine years ago. Oops.

This week, Amazon said it planned to start delivering its first drone in the US sometime in 2022, maybe, in a town in California.

Today’s newsletter addresses two questions: What is taking so long for drone deliveries? And are they better than other ways of bringing goods to our door?

The bottom line: For the foreseeable future, drone deliveries will be handy in a limited number of places for a small number of products under certain conditions. But because of the technical and financial limitations, drones are unlikely to be a mass scale on package delivery of the future.

Drone deliveries are a significant improvement for some tasks, such as bringing medicine to people in remote areas. But that’s less ambitious than the big drone dream Bezos and others pitched to the public.

Why are drones so difficult?

Mini aircraft that operate without human control face two significant obstacles: The technology is complex, and governments have required lots of red tape – often for good reason. (In the US, regulatory issues have largely been worked out.)

Dan Patt, an experienced drone engineer and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute research group, said he and I could make our own delivery drone in a garage for less than $ 5,000 a week. The basics are not that hard.

But the real world is infinitely complex and drones can’t deal with that. At rapid speeds, drones must accurately “see” and navigate around buildings, electrical wires, trees, other aircraft and people before landing on the ground or sending packages down from a height. GPS might conk out for a split second and crash the drone. There’s little room for error.

“Solving the problem of the first part is really easy,” Patt said. “Solving the complete problem to make drone delivery robust is really difficult.”

The typical technologists’ approach is to think smaller, which means confining drones to relatively uncomplicated settings. The Zipline focused on delivering blood and medical supplies to drones using concentrated spread-out parts in health care centers in Rwanda and Ghana where driving was difficult. A typical suburb or city is more complex, and vehicle deliveries are better alternatives. (Lockeford, Calif., Where Amazon plans to launch its first US drone deliveries, has a few thousand people living in increasingly spread-out homes.)

That’s still an incredible achievement, and over time drones are becoming more capable of delivering in other types of settings.

The even trickier problem, Patt said, is that drone deliveries may not make the economic sense most of the time. It’s cheap to stuff one more package on a UPS delivery truck. But drones can’t carry that much. They can’t make many stops in one flight. People and vehicles still need to take cat food and toothpaste to where the drones take off.

“I think it’s small markets, small concepts, niche uses for the next 10 years,” Patt said. “It’s not going to scale to replace everything.” Some people who work on drones are more optimistic than Patt, but we’ve seen similar optimism fall short in other areas.

Overpromising and underdelivering

The parallels between drones and driverless cars kept jumping out at me. Drone technicians told me that, as with driverless cars, they misjudged the challenge and overestimated the potential for computer-piloted vehicles.

Reliable drone delivery and driverless cars are a good idea, but they may never be as widespread as technologists imagined.

We keep making the same mistakes with automated technology. For decades, technicians kept saying that driverless cars, computers that cause humans and robotic factory workers would soon become ubiquitous and better than what came before. We want to believe them. And when the vision doesn’t pan out, disappointment sets in.

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Brian X. ChenThe New York Times, a consumer technology columnist, suggests ways to make our (non-drone-delivered) online shopping a bit gentler on the planet.

  • Resist instant gratification. If you do not need an item right away, it is better to choose the slowest shipping time. Next-day or same-day deliveries often mean package companies opt for speed over efficiency – more aircraft flights and more miles driven that contribute to pollution.

  • Use less cardboard. There is an option called Amazon Day Delivery that lets people pick a specific day of the week and consolidate multiple orders into one drop-off. The items are packed in fewer boxes, too. In addition, for some items Amazon offers “frustration-free packaging” that eliminates some unnecessary packaging. Choosing either of these options will reduce your cardboard and plastic consumption.

  • When practical, buy used. For many Amazon listings, there is an option to buy the product. For many items, from cast-iron cookware to screwdrivers, it makes perfect sense to buy something that was lightly used before being returned. You are giving a product a second life, and saving yourself a few bucks.

  • A former video producer at Google sued the company, claiming he was fired after complaining about the influence of a religious sect at work. Cade Metz and Dai Wakabayashi unraveled a strange tale of software, wine making and higher consciousness.

  • Inside the world of ransomware haggling: Bloomberg News described the work of negotiators dealing with criminals who locked up organizations’ computer systems until they were paid off. (A subscription may be required.)

  • A crypto workplace melts down during a crypto market meltdown. My colleagues Ryan Mac and David Yaffe-Bellany report on the boss of a cryptocurrency company who told employees to quit if they disagreed with him on issues such as female intelligence and gender identity.

Birds are rad. Here is a The mockingbird mimicking the sounds of a car alarm, police siren and cellphone.

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you like to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

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