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Drone Package Delivery Faces Complex Logistical Hurdles

Starship Technologies delivery robot

Once regulators and retailers work through the legality and logistics of aerial drone delivery, the unmanned flying objects will still have another hurdle to clear: the white picket fences of consumers’ homes.

Human postal and shipping company workers already have enough trouble getting packages to their final destinations, but drones face a host of other considerations. Will they hover or land as they dispatch their cargo? Will they deposit parcels on doorsteps or into specialty chutes? Will they wait around for someone to sign off on the delivery? Will they record drop-offs as a bulwark against customer service complaints? Will the family dog try to chase them?

Drones are an appealing technology for many service providers. Other than technicians operating the controls, they don’t require manual labor. They bypass road congestion, which makes them a fast alternative.

But the machines have their limitations. Heavier packages cut into their carrying capacity. Unlike trucks, they can’t make multiple stops with multiple packages. Their traveling range is dependent on their batteries.

At the moment, they’re not compatible with many residences and offices — drones need space to set down and take off, which isn’t possible in most dense, urban environments.

“Delivering drones to people’s houses involves a ton of risk that could come from packages getting stolen to the drone hitting someone to a small child reaching into a propeller,” said Logan Campbell, president of San Francisco drone company Aerotas. “There are workarounds — waivers, dedicated receiving infrastructure — but drones are going to have a lot of trouble competing with what is right now a very established industry of last-mile ground drivers that has spent billions of dollars finding ways to mitigate risk.”

Last fall, builder KB Home designed a prototype of a futuristic house that includes a rooftop landing pad for drones. Drones would land, then communicate wirelessly with the home’s smart network to open a chute that takes the packages indoors.

These delivery conundrums — such as how drones can navigate a Manhattan apartment building with a doorman — are increasingly relevant as companies such as Amazon begin to run the technology through commercial tests.

In a survey of more than 1,000 people in October, the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General found that 54 percent of residents worry that drones might malfunction and damage property. Half of respondents are concerned that drones would deliver packages to the wrong address, while nearly a quarter think the machines would have nowhere to land at their residence.

“Drones have the potential to offer substantial cost savings to deliverers while also drastically improving consumers’ e-commerce experience by offering extraordinarily fast delivery at any time of day to wherever a person is physically located — not just their home address,” researchers wrote. “At the same time, filling the sky with merchandise-laden robots is a proposition that raises alarm for many citizens, including those who anticipate never benefitting from the service firsthand.”

Last summer, the Federal Aviation Administration approved rules allowing commercial drones 55 pounds and under to fly during the day at altitudes lower than 400 feet. Drones with anti-collision lighting can operate into twilight hours.

Pilots must keep unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight, though the administration has granted some waivers to the rule.

Drone delivery testing and deployment is ramping up. Last year, Wal-Mart asked the FAA for permission to test delivery drones.

On Dec. 7, Amazon completed its first commercial drone delivery in Britain, sending an autonomous flier from a local fulfillment center to Cambridge. The flight, part of the online retail giant’s Prime Air testing process, took 13 minutes and relied on GPS navigation.

Footage of the drop shows a drone smoothly lowering itself onto a patch of yard marked by a placard and leaving a box of popcorn and tech gadgets.

Amazon Prime Air delivery drone. (Photo: Amazon)

But to track landings, Amazon will have to stream video from its eight-rotor “octocopters” back to its facilities, according to the ARK Invest investment management firm. At roughly $6.30 per gigabyte per month, ARK calculated that Amazon would have to shell out $25 million a year on total bandwidth cost.

Google has said that it hopes to have its Project Wing drone delivery system operational this year. The company, which received government approval last summer to test in the U.S., used its drones in 2014 to send Australian farmers candy bars, dog treats, a first-aid kit and water.

Video from Google shows the drones gently lowering packages to the ground using a winch. But a 2014 patent also suggests the drones might correspond with wheeled robots on the ground that will collect the parcel and transport it to a holding area, such as a garage. Perhaps in the future each home will have its own Rosie the Robot maid designed to sync with Google delivery drones.

During the Single’s Day shopping festival — a more extravagant version of Cyber Monday in China — online retailer JD.com used drone delivery in rural areas outside major cities such as Beijing. The company sent out packages from its regional delivery stations to more than 300,000 local agents known as “village promoters,” who then distributed individual items to customers.

Another drone company, Nevada-based Flirtey, partnered with convenience store chain 7-Eleven last fall to fly drones from shops to private homes in Reno. In 77 autonomous weekend missions over the past month, drones lowered food, medicine and other items to the ground, where the dozen homeowners in the test retrieved them within 10 minutes of ordering from a custom app.

The app notified customers of when their drone was loaded, when it left the store and when it was arriving at their doorstep.

In a statement, Flirtey Chief Executive Matthew Sweeny called the deliveries “a giant leap towards a future” of instant convenience.

Daimler, the owner of Mercedes-Benz, is working with Menlo Park, Calif., drone start-up Matternet to create drone-equipped delivery vans. The vehicles would deploy the drones to delivery sites — a similar idea to the one proposed last year by electric vehicle company Workhorse Group when the USPS began collecting bids to revamp its delivery fleet.

Matternet is also working with Swiss Post and Swiss WorldCargo on drone tests. The companies said in a statement last year that “the widespread use of drones is not expected within the next five years,” noting that the “focus is primarily on their use in exceptional cases or the transport of special items.”

Of course, not all drones need to be airborne. Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis are helping to bring the robot delivery race down to earth, launching an autonomous robot courier system capable of delivering groceries in less than 30 minutes. The London-based company, Starship Technologies, now includes 65 knee-high bots that can scoot down sidewalks loaded with goods. This fall, it partnered with Mercedes-Benz to develop what it calls the “Robovan” concept.

Mercedes-Benz vans will act as “motherships,” hosting eight Starship robots that it will release onto the streets to make deliveries.

“When the two transportation methods converge into one, the outcome is the most efficient, cost effective and convenient local delivery method in the world,” Heinla said.

Drones might be used for highly specialized, urgent deliveries — drugs to nursing homes, for example — within three to five years, followed by predictable deliveries such as parts for manufacturing, Cambell said. But drone delivery to the common consumer likely won’t happen with regularity for five to ten years, he said.

“There will not be any magical moment where drones all of a sudden become viable and last-mile ground delivery becomes unviable,” he said. “If it ever happens, it will be slowly, use-case by use-case.”