Delivery by drone or dead duck?

Tiny autonomous delivery drones dropping off everything from your book orders to pizza? There have been trials in many parts of the world by serious names – Amazon, DHL, Dominos Pizzas – but is this a serious post-cyberpunk instant gratification-by-delivery dream or a dystopian nightmare?

It is easy to think of many opportunitiesthat need to be overcome first for this to take-off, for example:

  • Noise – one drone is a buzzing irritant you could live with, especially if youve ever owned a radio controlled aircraft, but dozens constantly flying back and forth, really, youd be happy with that? Ok, it might not be noticeable in busy city centres, but those octo-copter blades aren’t exactly silent.
  • Safety – no problem say the pro camp – there are failsafe options built-in, add in a little regulation here and air traffic control there and it should be fine – and after all it will be keeping delivery drivers off the streets so it should be even safer replacing vans and motorbikes with parcelcopters.

Then theres fog, wind, snow, rain, lightning, malfunction, range, battery life, shotguns, slingshots, birds, humans, traffic, aircraft, overhead power and phone lines, not to mention landing sites, a tiny carrying capacity and huge legal issues.

OK, were a pretty innovative race and those clever folk in Silicon Valley will surely be able to fix all that stuff won’t they?


But looking at this a different way, perhaps the problem is less to do with finding a different/faster/cheaper way of delivering things, but doing something much more radical and not delivering them at all.

Newspapers (still not dead by the way) are rarely physically delivered to the door on a paper round anymore – they might be physically picked up, but now they are sold from far many more outlets than they used to be, or they are digitally delivered. No need for a drone to replace the paper boy or girl, there are alternatives and they are cheap and effective.

Many things have headed that way. Music and video? Digital download not DVD, CD or tape and vinyl (much). Anything digitise-able is easier to shift over the wire/fibre and with 3D printing that could apply to physical goods too, so maybe delivery wont be necessary at all? Well, there are many things that 3D printing can and does offer, but its probably not a complete substitute for everything e.g. fresh food as they’ve not quite achieved Star Trek replicators.

Far too often really clever innovations appear yet get applied in an old fashioned way. Then they try to fix a problem that isn’t there, isn’t worth expending any sort of effort on, or will disappear when things turn out differently (as they inevitably do at some point). Many technologies fall into this trap, when really if they were effectively employed and targeted to where they add significant value they could have great success and make a real difference rather than coming across like PR stunts.

For example, drones could be used to deliver consignments into dangerous locations without putting a delivery person at risk (some might say thats where wars are heading anyway); they could be used to rapidly deliver something vital to a critical situation – defibrillator to a first responder at a casualty; or deliver precious cargo – transplant organs, medicine to an offshore rig etc.

These are still on the edge of practical and commercial, let alone legal considerations, but probably much more credible than pizza. Marketing messages have to avoid being too outrageous otherwise they end up sounding like the boy who cried wolf and no one will be believe the sensible ones anymore.