Rush Delivery: In The Air (Part 2 of 3)

This is the much-delayed second part in a series of posts I started earlier this year. In that first post I discussed how companies are experimenting with small delivery robots that crawl along sidewalks to deliver goods right to your door. However, the sidewalk is not the only place where delivery drones may soon be found, as many companies are interested in using aerial drones to bring their products right to consumers.

In April, Wing, a division of Google parent company Alphabet, was given approval to start delivering goods via drone in Canberra, Australia. At launch, the drones were delivering food, medicine, and other products from 12 local businesses. This formal launch came after a trial period that ran for 18 months and 3,000 deliveries. Also in April, Wing received an FAA certification typically used for small airlines, as they begin to plan U.S. based tests, again with the intent to partner with local businesses. Not to be left behind, in June Amazon revealed it’s own delivery drone, which is indented to bring good directly from their warehouses to nearby customers within 30 minutes. Also in June, Uber announced a plan to partner with McDonalds to test delivery drones in San Diego. In Ohio, a partnership between the Air Force and the state government will allow drones to test outside of line-of-sight (a range that most civilian drones are currently limited to by the FAA). One company that intends to take part in the Ohio testing is VyrtX, which is looking to use drones to deliver human organs for transplant. 

But just what would wider use of such delivery drones mean for society? What would it mean to live in a world with robots buzzing around above our heads? In the Australian tests there were complaints about noise, with some residents claiming the sound of the machines caused them significant distress. In January of this year an unidentified drone shut down London’s Heathrow Airport, showing what can happen when drones wander into places they’re not welcome. In February of this year NASA announced two tests of “urban drone traffic management,” one in Texas, and the other in Nevada. Such a system would no doubt be necessary before widespread deployment of any of the systems so far proposed – to prevent incidents like the one in London.   

There is also a major privacy concern with drones collecting data as they fly above homes and businesses. This concern extends beyond just what privately owned drones may find, but also what law enforcement could collect. In Florida v. Riley, a 1988 case, the Supreme Court found that there is not reasonable expectation of privacy from aircraft (in that case, a police helicopter) flying in navigable airspace above a person’s home, when the air craft is flying within FAA regulations. So drones would provide a useful tool for investigations, and one that is limited only by FAA rules.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about delivery drones – and given the highly-regulated nature of all forms of air travel, the federal government, via the FAA, currently has a lot of power over just what can go on in U.S. airspace. What remains to be seen is if this regulatory structure will stifle drone development or instead insure that any market for delivery drones is developed deliberately, rather than ad hoc, with an emphasis on safety.

P.S. – A brief follow-up to my last article – Ford recently partnered with Agility Robotics on a new form of last mile delivery bot, a bipedal unit designed to carry up to 40 pounds. Could it become the C-3PO to the R2-D2-like bots already in testing?