Delivery drones cannot deliver the goods
The crisis caused by e-bike traffic bans in several Chinese cities makes one wonder if newgenerations of drones might take the place of urban couriers. Visions of some modern futuristic megacity with skies filled high, low and wide with nifty drones delivering South Korean cosmetics, urgent medicines and nanochip upgrades make for a nice place to live.
Yet the e-bike crisis forces us to rethink. It is risky to ride and risky to cross the street. So the net to clean up this semi-organized chaos has severely deterred the couriers who had suddenly become ubiquitous in just the past 15 years.
Seattle-based Amazon revolutionized electronic retailing under the bold inspiration of Jeff Bezos, and is now vigorously promoting drone delivery as a test concept. The principal target is delivery of packages weighing less than 2.2 kilograms within a radius of 15 kilometers. It is claimed this covers 86 percent of Amazon deliveries.
The obstacles, though, may be insurmountable, beginning with flight rules that are increasing drastically as hobby drones for aerial photography become popular. To test technologies without US regulations Amazon is working on the Canadian side of the border and has another pilot study in Switzerland. YouTube promotions by Amazon are on the one hand tempting us to believe things we need could literally be coming down out of the sky, and on the other hand leaving us skeptically wondering why it looks so easy.
In reality, the contrast of fiction and fact would even be worse than car commercials that portray your dream car alone on the freeway, as against the reality of Beijing motorists’ crawl to the suburbs over the weekends. The reader is invited to project in the mind, the air traffic between warehouse and your house if it approached the 400 dispatches a minute now leaving a courier hub. Battle of Britain drama, complete with midair crashes. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Authority has already done the projections and has instituted draconian regulations that will ensure there can be no ad hoc enterprises doing modern-day pony express dashes across the skyline. Most countries will follow this trend.
In China there is no way the cowboy e-bike riders will take to the skies with remote controlled drones. There may be some unauthorized attempts but laws will prevail.
Amazon and other pioneers such as Flirtey can demonstrate delivery of one package to one place, but unless that is a vital package a customer will pay a very high price for, it won’t take off. Rescue services and medical emergency teams may in future use drones in special circumstan- ces to deliver blood or some other key item, but nothing like a regular courier service.
To address the crowded sky issue engineers have introduced Sense AndAvoid technologies and proven that a drone can steer around a hot air balloon. But SAAis not even used in2Droad traffic with vehicles as platforms so there is no hope for an orderly crowded sky.
One partially substitute courier delivery system is the network of brave cyclists that deliver important packages across the central business districts of some major modern cities in 30 minutes. It seems unthinkable in China, possibly because of the reckless independent spirit as popularized by the jumping, spinning couriers of NewYork.
Perhaps the pragmatic solution is to rethink the electric threewheeler technology that has gladdened the lives of hundreds of millions of consumers across China with deliveries that are there waiting when they come home from work. The final word on trying to do that with drones comes from Australian drone expert, Tim Blumfield, who is licensed to operate a fleet of special purpose drones for remote area surveys: “In the city? Ordinary package delivery? An apocalypse of biblical proportions.” Surely China does not want that.
The author is a fellow at the Environment Futures Research Institute, Griffith University, Australia.