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Ask HN: Whatever happened to the “coming wave” of delivery drones?
157 points by cgb223 10 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 219 comments
I feel like a few years ago all the rage was that Amazon and other retailers were going to deliver things via drones, straight to your doorstep

Food delivery companies as well seemed to be testing out robots that would bring your food to you albeit in a more sidewalk bound way

Its been a few years and I have yet to have a single thing drone delivered to my house

What happened to that alternate future? Are companies still working on it? Or did we move on from that idea for some reasons we discovered?




I don't remember where, but I read a lengthy comment from someone in the industry which said there were two main things preventing delivery drones from being a viable market:

1. FAA regulations - delivery drones can't operate within X miles of an airport (technically they can, but it requires a much stricter degree of certification and compliance nobody wants to bother with)

2. Drones need a landing space, so people without yards (like apartment and townhouse dwellers, who make up a lot of the population in exactly the densely populated areas where you'd want to use drones to begin with) can't be served

And it turns out that once you exclude "houses within X miles of an airport" and "houses without an LZ", there aren't enough customers left to make delivery drones worth it.


2 is surprising as that’s the opposite of where I’d expect delivery drones to be useful. You don’t need them in dense urban environments where a stocked truck offloads inventory with low mileage. You want them in rural areas where as the crow flies makes a difference and it’s expensive to have a truck driving about sparsely populated areas.


The thing that makes rural areas inefficient for trucks (distance between customers) is far worse for drones. Drones have to be based out of somewhere close to the customer due to their short battery life, which means you have to have a lot of bases, each of which only serves a handful of customers. A truck will burn a lot of fuel per customer, but a single one can still serve a large area on one tank and can be based out of a nearby city.


A truck will burn a lot less fuel per kg of cargo. That's because it is carrying many packages at once and fuel consumption is split across all packages. A drone only carries one package. So in reality a truck is a way more efficient way of delivering good.


Seems like the best compromise is something like the "drone spitter" delivery trucks from Ready Player One.

The truck wouldn't need to slow down (let alone stop), multiple drones would give high utilization, and you could further optimize delivery routes by "crow flying" to houses that aren't even on the same street.

https://www.inverse.com/article/43043-ready-player-one-drone...

https://www.imcdb.org/v001094117.html


I had to watch an ad before I could watch that company's commercial.


I suspect this still only works if you can utilize the capacity and have simultaneous deliveries, which would required a cluster of deliveries, thus likely not good for rural areas.


>I suspect this still only works if you can utilize the capacity and have simultaneous deliveries

You can still eliminate inefficient stop-and-go driving for some fraction of stops (ie not U-turns), and (most important) the time-wasting "last 100 feet" walk. Sure it's not as superior in rural areas vs suburban, but with low enough overhead you could still beat a traditional truck.

Naturally if the drone gear cost millions of dollars and took up half the truck, then I'd agree it wouldn't be worth it. In reality I don't think that's the trade.

UPS showed off an interesting "roof mounted" hardware approach (ignoring how they depict of the rest of the ops model). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYBu2glKHTA


Who is gonna take the box off the shelf in the truck and attach it to the drone? Boxes are stacked on the truck and move all around, not set neatly spaced on a shelf that doesn't move. You'll need another robot to do that for you.


The numbers I've seen don't pencil out costwise even without assuming the more fuel efficient hybrid and electric trucks becoming popular.

Can you share why you think it makes sense cost wise?


Anytime you think, "ah, the solution is this thing from Ready Player One", step back and remember the following:

- that book was set in a shitty gig economy dystopia, even if the main character managed to personally get rich in the end

- that book was fucking terrible and it's frankly embarrassing that grown adults make reference to it in a positive manner


You know what’s even worse? The audiobook version, narrated by Will Wheaton.


A drone must supply its own lift against the pull of gravity.

A truck gets that for free via tyres and tarmac.

Air travel makes sense for high-value and time-sensitive payloads, most especially passengers, but also communications (airmail delivery was, and remains, a significant revenue source for airlines).

Fixed-wing drones (as Zipline uses in Rwanda) are more efficient than rotary craft, as forward velocity generates lift, though at a cost of being unable to hover, which makes point delivery to locations lacking a landing strip (or other capture device) more challenging. Zipine utilises parachutes (and lightweight cargo) for its deliveries. Pivot-rotor craft (which Zipline seems to be experimenting with for urban deliveries) make hovering more viable whilst preserving the efficiency of fixed-wing flight.

I still see this as an option with very limited applicability.


One of them also don't need to generate upwards lift. A helicopter is also less efficient than a truck.


You're probably right, it's the equivalent of public transportation for cargo. And you still need a truck to deliver the packages to all those drone bases anyway.


One "hybrid" solution is to base the drones on a truck that drives around the city.


that sounds like a fun travelling salesman problem with more moving parts. What is the best route for this drone platform truck, taking into account how efficient it is for each drone to make its delivery, and how the truck’s position will have changed in the time it takes for the drone to return.


That is actually a problem under research; there are a few papers on it and luckily they use the obvious name — TSP with drones or TSP-D.

I gave that problem a very shallow go for a Metaheuristics assignment, and while I didn't really mess with the domain specific heuristics for it, it did seem pretty fun indeed.


An aircraft carrier aircraft carrier!


I'd like to see someone try integrating them into the delivery trucks. Roof mount it, make it easy to load from the back storage area, and have it auto charge. That way drivers can choose to hand off smaller packages to it and launch when they are delivering close by.


That's how I've always imagined it. The top of the FedEx truck is a mini-helipad, and there are two people on the truck. As the truck makes its normal route stopping to deliver heavy packages on foot, there are two drones darting back and forth delivering light ones, with someone constantly feeding them packages and batteries.

Somewhere years ago I have a chat log where I describe the whole thing as imagined, including the phrase "print out helipad_qr.pdf and tape it to your driveway" as part of the process. ;)


I would bet money that the cost of

- a second person (pay + benefits + training)

- drones

- helipad

- vehicle idle time for loading the drones

is more expensive than one person just driving the boxes around.


I don't think so.

You're describing the total cost and ignoring the larger amount of packages being delivered.

Cost per package drops.


What delivery men need isn't messing around with slow and complicated drone launches. They need the equivalent of a mailbox, i.e. package lockers in front of every apartment building and in front of every house. Then all they have to do is get off the delivery vehicle, retrieve the package, open the locker, insert the package, close the locker and then go back to the vehicle.

At that point you have reached human peak efficiency and then the only thing you can do is build a self driving delivery van with an integrated crane/robot arm to operate the locker.

Self driving is hard. Building a robot arm that inserts packages sideways into a locker doesn't appear as difficult. The post office can dictate the package formats and add visual markers to make it easier for the robot to grab the right side.


Sounds lethal for cyclists and children on toys to pull out a metal rod over sidewalks and what not.

Just put the mailbox so the postman reaches it from the driver seat window.

No SaaS, apps, drones or VC money needed.


I really doubt that cost per package drops more than adding multiple extra drivers.

The truth is that the wave of “imminent drone delivery” mania was always just marketing, and wasn’t going to make sense except in extremely limited scenarios.


Also the drones take up more capacity in the vehicle, as does the charging station, the batteries, the loading mechanisms. And so does the second person. You can carry far less packages now.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYBu2glKHTA

I don't remember seeing this demo, but considering it is exactly what I imagined and it's a demonstration from 6 years ago, maybe I did.


Where have I seen this before?

https://wiki.factorio.com/Personal_roboport


And the 'drone spitter' USPS vans in the Ready Player One film.


It would probably be a lot cheaper and safe to make an autonomous or semi-autonomous wheeled platform that unloads and delivers the packages, sort of a motorized pallet cart, which would be usable also for bigger loads.


This is a wonderful idea! I’d love to see this implemented somewhere.


The old "why not both" solution :)

(I'm not being sarcastic. "Why not both?" thinking is powerful!)


I saw a demo recently where they had a drone flying high and it zip-lined a package down to the destination directly below it, so the drone never had to get close to the ground. I’m not sure if that’s current strategy but it seems like a cool idea to cut down on noise and proximity issues.


I think this is the popular route they’re going, to avoid drone theft/vandalism, problem is still the liability of dropping things on people’s heads regardless of CV or other sensors.



This is happening in select parts of Australia.

https://wing.com/en_au/press/australia/


That’s actually an idea: create a lightweight Ariel tram way just for package delivery. Sort of like the old vacuum tube networks some cities used to have.


The issue there is that the battery tech to support long distance delivery drones does not exist yet.


Interesting, I am woefully ignorant on typical drone ranges.


Now I’m imagining a larger, fixed-wing loitering drone carrying the package(s) and a small last-mile drone that detaches, drops its payload at the destination and then returns to the mothership.


There should be even larger drones that are always in the air that are used as supply hubs for these smaller drones. Actually those should be whole warehouses where people work.


Why not a zeppelin?

(The prospect of delivery drones is silly, but whatever it is fun to think about).


Winner. Battery capacity needs to double and charge twice as fast to make EV adoption possible.


Swappable batteries makes the charge time a nonissue.


Swappable 1000lb batteries? Gasoline weighs 80lbs.


2 is wrong and you are exactly right. Amazon explains drones are exactly for meant for rural areas here: https://youtu.be/yMqbj4Kj-z0?t=688

A lone driver might get paid X $/hour but in a rural area, only reach a single house with his truck, whereas the same driver might make 10x deliveries in the same time period in an urban area. And optimally, you'd have one drone pilot controlling multiple drones at the same time with each one taking less time than a car.

I'm guessing the biggest cost here isn't fuel or energy, it's the staffing.


In his point #2, he is saying you can deliver to rural areas, but not to densely populated areas like cities, where there are not enough landing sites. I have no idea whether this is correct or not.


3. Drones, autonomous or not, aren't anywhere near reliable enough to do autonomous remote delivery. Final delivery is fraught with a myriad of things that can go wrong. GPS is not 100% reliable or accurate in urban areas. Failure in flight means both drone and package are lost, with the added bonus of potentially hurting or killing someone, liability for which the insurance company is not going to underwrite because drones aren't reliable. Backup flight modes add to weight and cost, and reduce deliverable payload. And even after all of that, aviation authorities at least in my jurisdiction are extremely conservative and won't approve them for autonomous delivery and flight near anywhere people live.

4. Payloads on flying things have severe weight and volume limitations. This limits what you can deliver to things that are small and light.

5. An autonomous drone represents an opportunity for theft or interference. See the drone coming, then: steal the goods when it delivers, interfere with its GPS and force it into an error mode that lands the drone, etc. You don't even need to be at the destination.

6. Multicopters, the devices most people think of when they think drones, have terrible range and payload capacity. The flight mode is akin to helicopters, "beat the air into submission". On the upside, they can hover on the spot. In contrast, plane-style drones which fly aerodynamically or "on the wing", have more range (being more efficient), but have difficulty landing on specific spots and then returning back to base. There are solutions around this, but not 100% viable in all cases. VTOL planes exist for instance, but they're finicky. Parachutes as a delivery mechanism also exist, but not everything can be delivered by dropping a payload.

And much more...

Air delivery exists in places where these aren't concerns and where the cost benefit analysis skews the other way. Zipline [0] has been doing a great job delivering blood to remote areas in Rwanda for a while now. Their product, payload, delivery method, geographical location, regulatory environment, all align to make it worth it. Watch some youtube videos of their operation, it's pretty neat.

[0] https://www.flyzipline.com/


> 4. Payloads on flying things have severe weight and volume limitations. This limits what you can deliver to things that are small and light.

This point to me seems like such an obvious hard limit on how well this could ever work without some serious advancements in battery tech, and it's why the whole thing seemed like mostly snake oil to me.

The x-copters have very low weight limits (and low flight times when loaded) and realistically this wouldn't be possible for weights over ~10 pounds without very short range limitations and massive downtime for recharging (and/or truly massive drones, which would pose too much of a safety risk in populated areas).

Not to mention the physical shape of even many small / light objects would make stable flight difficult or impossible. The second the wind picks up, they are in serious trouble.

Maybe some small and very specific niches can utilize it, but I suspect in almost all cases (even when it is possible to use these things optimally) driving is actually going to be cheaper overall.


This (as well as range) depends on what size and cost you can accept. You can absolutely get drones that can carry useful loads and/or that have long ranges, but they're large and very expensive.


This. The tech was never there, the hype came from people who didn't understand the fundamental problem, and the secondary stuff about regs and people not having landing zones is cope to disguise yet another failure on the part of the hype zombies.


As someone who used to be in the industry, and living in one of the only US locations with a current UAS delivery program I can help clarify.

> 1. FAA regulations - delivery drones can't operate within X miles of an airport (technically they can, but it requires a much stricter degree of certification and compliance nobody wants to bother with)

Nope. This isn't really the issue at all. We have an airport near by (two if you count the hospital and the FAA does). UAS delivery isn't actually under UAS rules, it's under commercial freight delivery rules. This is how Project Wing/Google operate because the FAA still doesn't allow beyond line of sight operations for UAS.

> 2. Drones need a landing space, so people without yards (like apartment and townhouse dwellers, who make up a lot of the population in exactly the densely populated areas where you'd want to use drones to begin with) can't be served

Sorta. They don't actually land, they drop the payload while hovering. So they do need some uninstructed space to drop the package, but not much. Works well in the suburbs and rural areas but awful in the city.

> And it turns out that once you exclude "houses within X miles of an airport" and "houses without an LZ", there aren't enough customers left to make delivery drones worth it.

Again, not an airport problem.

It's really economics. It's v expensive per gram to deliver by drone. That's why it works well for light but high value things (like medicine) but sucks for stuff like food.


> It's really economics. It's v expensive per gram to deliver by drone. That's why it works well for light but high value things (like medicine) but sucks for stuff like food.

I always suspected the reason was purely profit-driven so it's good to hear it confirmed.

I know I'm getting cynical as I age, but the idea that regulation was the only thing in the way of it seemed laughable given recent history.


It's certainly not the only thing, but it's also not helping. It's an area where we need some more research into better power efficiency systems for cost to improve. But regulations are not encouraging investments in the space as much as you would think.

Also there is a strong education and hobby to industry pipeline. However with the way the UAS space is being regulated that pipeline has been drying up.


> Sorta. They don't actually land, they drop the payload while hovering. So they do need some uninstructed space to drop the package, but not much. Works well in the suburbs and rural areas but awful in the city.

What's the plan there? Leave my package out in the middle of the yard to get rained on or stolen?


So the way project Wing works is you order through an app and track the delivery. Delivery is within a few minutes so the lag time is fairly low.

I don't see this system being used to deliver stuff not being specifically requested (like say an Rx). Strong winds, fog, and rain would ground delivery also.


> And it turns out that once you exclude "houses within X miles of an airport" and "houses without an LZ", there aren't enough customers left to make delivery drones worth it.

That would make sense if this was some incredibly capital-intense thing to develop and enjoyed immense economies of scale. But I don't see why that would be the case. Surely there are many thousands of towns each with tens of thousands of single-family homes that are sufficiently far from an airport and currently served by daily package deliveries via automobile. Unless we're considering every tiny community airport.


Also in the LZ column: trees and power lines. From above, looking down, power lines are almost impossible to spot for human pilots. A CV model steering down from 400 feet would need to avoid such.


Forget Drones, even the land robots [the ones that look like small moving pillars] haven't been put to actual use - the companies that made them or built software for them ended up raising good cash and exiting by getting sold to other big companies in the logistics space, but no one knows for sure what their future is, lol.


https://starship.co/ is in actual use in a few cities, but they have not exactly taken over the logistics space yet.


1 is a bit surprising. It’s not like housing around airports are particularly popular for noise reasons. Here in Seattle, if you don’t count float planes, we don’t even have general aviation airports to worry about until you hit Boeing field to the south and Paine field in the north (again Boeing related).

Most new town homes have rooftop decks (because Seattle doesn’t get much snow), why can’t they land on those?


Renton Airport, Boeing Field, Seatac, Paine Field Harvey Field, Arlington Field, plus scores of smaller poorly marked airstrips if you check OpenStreetMap. It turns out very few places in the US are sufficiently far away from an "airport" to allow drones to operate. Even out in the boonies.


There is literally nothing in Seattle between Paine field and Boeing field in the main I5 corridor if you don’t count sea planes (all the airport symbols along the lake are float planes, Boeing field, SeaTac, and Renton are all basically right next to each other). It is a pretty air strip dead zone, you had to go all the way out to Arlington to mention another one (they have a nice playground next to it that the kid likes to watch planes from)! And ya, the boonies have landing strips everywhere (like the one out near Snohomish used for sky diving).


You're clear with no restrictions from about Downtown to North Lynnwood. Even then, as you approach Paine and SeaTac, you can fly with altitude restrictions (300, 200ft, etc). On the eastside along 405, permissible areas are even greater.

https://b4ufly.aloft.ai/?lat=47.124171412997555&long=-122.39...


I always thought of it as a luxury, instant delivery thing. Like if you want your package on 15 minutes, pay $50 extra and someone will pilot it for you. And call your phone to run outside after finding the nearest LZ, if they have to. You know, like do real work. I guess that's not what they had in mind?


Also I imagine there's still a huge risk of the drones malfunctioning, being shot down, messed with, disrupted, breaking due to weather, etc.


Currently work at company that was working on delivery drones.

3. Drones kept getting shot down during testing

Not kidding


Wing (Google) and a few others have it open to the public in suburbs in South East Queensland Australia atm. Have ordered a drink through door dash to try it out before and it seems to work pretty well.

It wouldn't surprise me if the kinks are being ironed out here before opening it up in bigger markets.

There were a fair few complaints about the noise for the logan ones when they first came out but apparently they are "mostly" sorted now.

- https://www.facebook.com/7NEWSBrisbane/videos/logan-is-becom... - https://doordash.news/australia/doordash-and-wing-announce-p... - https://www.businessnewsaustralia.com/articles/wing-s-drone-...


Yeah my complaint is that they cant see my driveway and wont deliver to me.

Its logan, so you know, kids on dirtbikes, dogs, road noise, fireworks, loud music etc I barely notice the drones.


I live in a Durham, NC and there is a small radius where a company called Flytrex does drone food delivery. We use it every couple weeks since they have almost no fees unlike Uber Eats. From what I understand they place the order, drive a car to pick up your food, drive back to the launch pad, then load and send the drone. It then drops the food using a long cable that leaves behind a reusable bag in your front lawn. It’s surprisingly accurate since it has about a 15ft diameter circle to hit in my front yard to avoid trees and the house. The one downside is the weight limit and weather. If you go over something like 8 pounds then the drone will fly what it can and someone will follow begging in a car with the remainder. Bad weather means car delivery.


Fascinating. But curious how it can operate without higher fees? There's still the person driving to the place, waiting for the order, then driving back to launch. In fact, it almost feels like this would be more expensive in many cases than just bringing it straight over. Burning VC money?


Im in a different Flytrex delivery area and I don’t have exact answers but probably some insight. There is a strip mall or two with like 15 restaurants and these are the ones on their service so the driving is really under a mile. Also they seemingly have a new 30% off code for one particular restaurant every few days, likely to funnel orders and make the “last mile” delivery person able to batch pick up. The drone really only took under 4 minutes to fly to my house (I was on the outer edge of the delivery ring so it’s gotta be the furthest atm).

They don’t have to deal with traffic or 3rd party delivery drivers. From hitting order to my first bite was under 30 minutes (on my second order, my first order was super late but they comped me - the first delivery they have a member watch the drone land in your yard to ensure it’s working).


This seems necessarily what is going on here. They still have all the human labor except for the last ~10 minutes of driving time.


How much noise do these make, on a scale from 1 to leaf blower?


I interviewed a few months ago with one of the leaders in the space, and when I asked the HM my standard “what do you see as the biggest challenge facing the business right now” I got a surprising answer: “the weather.”

My sense is that drone delivery has the same weather dependency as self-driving cars, only greatly magnified.


Labor ~60% of delivery cost: https://www.dispatchtrack.com/blog/last-mile-delivery-costs-...

If people have the option to get a package ~10% slower for ~60% cheaper, they'll take the slower option the vast majority of the time.

I would have assumed that the savings in labor would be eaten by drones using more energy, but it looks like drones can actually be significantly more energy efficient than light-trucks for delivery: https://engineering.cmu.edu/news-events/news/2022/09/16-last...

Energy is the second biggest input in delivery cost.


Except it wouldn't be 10% slower for 60% cheaper of their item, it's 60% cheaper for the delivery cost which is a small fraction of the overall cost.


Have you looked up small, light items on Amazon and seen that they pack them up packs of large N? They do that to hide the fact that delivery is actually a very large fraction of cost on such items. Food delivery, as mentioned in the OP, is another example.


Exactly - rule of thumb is that about $4 of any small item on Amazon goes to Amazon. That seven dollar cable is really at best a $3 cable, including costs to get the item to Amazon in the first place.


This is unintuivite at first, but makes sense. As we approach last mile, economies of scale begin to not only diminish, but invert.

Let me put it another way... it's very inefficient to move cargo by a fleet of cars vs a fleet of trucks, and it's even more efficient to move cargo by train.

But it would be terribly inefficient to move that train to your home. A UPS truck is more efficient than a train, and a guy on a bike might be more efficient than a UPS truck, other than labor.

But if we can get an autonomous vehicle, then the labor goes away, and if the delivery drone is electric, then it can largely be very efficient- going point to point in a straight line.

I hadn't thought about it before, but it makes so much sense.


I doubt the cost for the drone is 0% of the cost of having a guy operate a truck.


Not 0%, but a drone center can have a few people operating many drones, so the labor cost is distributed there too.


Absolutely. In cities which are equipped for it, the small self-driving vehicles make so much more sense, for this reason.

Starship (https://www.starship.xyz/) have been running in a big way regularly in Milton Keynes (UK) for years now; the little robots driving around are a regular feature. Seems to be expanding to Cambridge (UK) too.

I imagine US suburb design makes this less feasible (I think I read that Starship started on college campuses in the states), and that's why we don't hear so much excitement about this approach? It seems to make way more sense to me than drones, mostly for the weather issue


Does wildfire haze get in the way? Can IR or LIDAR or something see through it reasonably well?

If you built your drone on mostly visual data... or visual-centric sensor fusion... imagine trying to deliver in NYC with The Fog. The tradeoff drones make for their airspace is being at an altitude where there's an awful lot of "terrain".

Fortunately it's not like that here but I'm not in an area that's probably dense enough for drone delivery for a bit (except subdivisions/etc).


I'm not surprised at all - that was the every first constraint that came to mind when I first heard about this idea.


The “killer app” (pun intended) for drone delivery was precision delivery of high explosive munitions to their target. Increasingly, they also deliver supplies.

At these tasks, they excel and are in so much demand that both sides of the Russian invasion of Ukraine can’t produce enough quantity to meet demand.


I live in an area with Wing drone delivery. On a typical day I hear approximately zero drones flying, and we have only personally used it 5-6 times in 3 years (mostly as a novelty to impress kids that are visiting).

There isn't that great a selection of stuff that you can get, and some stores have come and gone from the app.

It's just not that useful. We live in the suburbs, and a weekly trip to the grocery store or big box store (5-10 min drives) can get so much more and at a better price than buying things individually. It's kind of like milk delivery - it made sense before refrigeration but after that, you would buy weekly and just store it.

And right now delivery is free, but it would be even worse if/when it isn't.

One area where it could work is coffee/tea delivery (Starbucks, etc). These are things you buy individually and typically everyday. But AFAIK we don't have that and its not on the horizon.


> Food delivery companies as well seemed to be testing out robots that would bring your food to you albeit in a more sidewalk bound way

Former delivery robot startup cofounder (Robby Technologies) here. To be honest hardware was by far the most time-consuming thing. I wanted to spend 80%+ of our engineering time and funds on software but it turned out that we ended up spending 80%+ of the time dealing with electromechanical issues, supply chain issues, bad USB cables, motor controller issues, shitty crimping jobs, thermal management, plastic breakage, bad PCBs, bad BMS, bad lithium cells, snapping drive belts, malfunctioning locks, malfunctioning cameras, manufacturer-mislabeled motor wires, sensors that didn't meet specs, antenna placement and RF interference, and lots more. Then there was the operational overhead of figuring out how to charge, move, and store all of them, and how to get things in/out of them when businesses weren't willing to walk from the store to the sidewalk to drop something in a robot, and the customers weren't always willing to come outside to grab their stuff. Then there were robots that got stuck in potholes and the like, and had to be rescued by driving out to them. All that while trying to scale up manufacturing, which never really happened beyond a certain scale. Guess how much time we had left for writing autonomous software.

The thing is, autonomous driving, especially on the sidewalk is actually much easier than the hardware problem of figuring out how to design, build, and scale a new type of vehicle from scratch. The main issue is we, and likely all the other companies, were stuck in a hellhole of hardware problems that something was always "on fire" hardware-wise.

In retrospect I see the companies that went to the roads instead of the sidewalks had it slightly easier on the hardware side: they could just buy a reliable car and mod it, and get to work on software. Safety-wise, of course, they have it much harder, it's a trade-off.


Thanks for sharing your story honestly. These are things I wish investors understood -- building good HW is just not as sexy as computer vision on the pitch deck


Long story short, It's the FAA's fault. Initially they said, "no, you can't do that" because there are no regulations for that. With pressure from companies, the FAA took years to create the rules to make drone deliveries legal. Finally there is some regulatory framework.

Drones have to be specifically designed and manufactured to pass the FAA's certification program. We've all seen capable drones from Amazon's marketing, but does it please the FAA? A drone can't do the job until the FAA signs off on that make/model. It's not easy to do and requires developing a craft with all sorts of safety features.

Companies are making progress, and I think the most insightful videos to watch on the topic come from Zipline. They're already operating in Rwanda with support from their government. They have a streamlined service and make 100s of deliveries per day.


To be fair, this sounds like the FAA is doing its job. Tiny consumer drones are one thing, but if there are going to be fleets of drones carrying packages all over my city, I'll take a slow and thorough FAA over move fast and break things.


Drone deliveries substitute for cars and trucks, which kill 20 pedestrians every day in the US.


That's the stat for all cars and trucks, but drone delivery isn't going to get commuters off the road. How many deaths are due to package delivery vehicles? More specifically, how many are due to the vehicles that will actually be replaced by drones?

That's the number to beat, and even a single collision with an airplane would most likely make up the yearly allotment before we even get into "package falls on someone's head", "drone runs out of battery over the freeway", and all the other failure modes a drone has.


That's why it's important to regularize drone traffic before it get out of hand. Safe flyways to get to neighborhoods. Delivery routes that find residential homes less busy (e.g. when school is in session).

On the subject of vehicles-causing-accidents, it's possible delivery trucks trying to beat a deadline may be over-represented in statistics. Speeding, driving aggressively, parking all over the place. So there's that.


Drones are point to point delivery, which is why they're currently used for transporting high priority items like cooked food and blood transfusions. If drones were legalized in more places, they'd substitute for quick trips to the store. This would be safer for everyone involved and reduce pollution.

Planes fly at much higher altitudes than delivery drones, so the only collision worries would be near airports. The FAA already bans drones near airports and requires special authorization to fly a drone within miles of major airports. Even if you get approval, you can't exceed 400 feet above ground level.


All 20 deaths/day are attributable to delivery drivers?


Of course not, but drones substitute for more than just delivery drivers, and delivery drivers do run over people regularly. Searching for terms like "fedex driver crash" gets you plenty of crashes and a decent number of deaths.[1] The most common casualties seem to be the drivers themselves and dogs. Most deaths are ruled accidental, but around once a year a delivery driver is charged with homicide for killing people with their truck.[2][3] In cases where an unsupervised child is killed, the blame is usually placed on the parents rather than the driver.[4]

If you're worried about delivery drones flying over neighborhoods, you should be even more worried about multi-ton delivery trucks barreling through places where kids play.

1. https://pix11.com/news/local-news/cyclist-fatally-struck-by-...

2. https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/traffic/2021/12/driver-of-f...

3. https://mynbc15.com/news/local/mobile-ups-driver-indicted-fo...

4. https://www.foxla.com/news/amazon-denying-responsibility-aft...


Tiny helicopters crashing into things and falling from the sky are harmless?


Come on. Compared to a truck?


Good. Without their careful and considered work, the US skies would experience it's own tragedy of the commons. There's a reason air travel is so damn safe, and it's not because private companies were left to their own devices.


Wikipedia somewhat disagrees with you:

"The Air Commerce Act of May 20, 1926, is the cornerstone of the U.S. federal government's regulation of civil aviation. This landmark legislation was passed at the urging of the aviation industry, whose leaders believed the airplane could not reach its full commercial potential without federal action to improve and maintain safety standards. "

Maybe people were smarter in the '20s, maybe they were hoping for regulatory capture? Not sure, but obviously it's a good thing...

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Aviation_Administrat...


That quote does not disagree with OP at all. It says that the aviation industry itself determined that they should not be "left to their own devices" (OP's words) and asked for federal regulation.


"It's the FAA's fault" makes it sound like that's a bad thing. I think it's good that the FAA took time to create meaningful regulations and that somebody hasn't been able to just slap something together and be able to pass them.


Mark Rober video of Zipline:

https://youtu.be/DOWDNBu9DkU


Zipline's work in Rwanda is really inspiring. I love that they are doing real good in the world first and can leverage that to grow their commercial business.


Zip line also works because it’s for rural areas that don’t have a good road network, in the US driving would almost certainly be faster.


I imagine it depends on the size of delivery. Even with extremely good roads, zipline would probably be faster (I can't imagine that flying in a straight line is _ever_ slower than driving), just lower bandwidth. Single small package? Zipline is probably much faster. Many and/or large packages? Driving is almost certainly faster. Good roads don't change this basic fact, they just change the break even point.


> We've all seen capable drones from Amazon's marketing

In fairness, if you've only seen it in marketing materials, you haven't seen it.


in addition to car accidents, in the future , you will have one more way to die prematurely : drone accidents


75% of blood deliveries in Rwanda outside Kigali are done via drone (flyzipline.com)


For those curious Mark Rober has a decent clip on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOWDNBu9DkU


This seems like the kind of high importance deliveries that drones could be utilized for, not brining me some munchies at 3am.


They've built something really difficult and saved a lot of lives, let them make profit off of your desire for munchies.


Jeff Bezos, 2013: "There's no reason they can't be effectively used as delivery vehicles"

"It can't be before 2015, because that's the earliest that we can get the rules from the FAA. But it could be 4 or 5 years."

- 10 mile radius from Amazon FC

- half hour delivery

- Objects up to 5 lbs, which is 86% of items Amazon delivered at that time

Said the biggest problems were redundancy, reliability, and safety

https://www.cbsnews.com/video/amazon-ceo-unveils-drone-deliv...


There are some companies/efforts in the space:

https://www.manna.aero/ https://www.flyzipline.com/ https://wing.com/ https://corporate.walmart.com/newsroom/2022/05/24/were-bring...

Several more out there still from the initial bust.

Regulations make it challenging for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) autonomous delivery, particularly in the US with the FAA. Also, it's a hard problem in autonomy to nail it every time despite advancements. Less than 1% failure is still potentially catastrophic when you're carrying a few pounds of lithium batteries above people's backyards.


regulations in ths USA make it challenging, but in EUrope - we're flying at scale.

Video here of 1 weekend of deliveries-: https://youtu.be/0lFT_K47Pa4


Definitely a fan of your work at Manna, Bobby.

Love the hardware design and the no-nonsense "get it done" with continuous drone operations in Europe. Things for us to aspire towards as another drone (non-delivery) company.


Great video on the current state of drone air delivery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMqbj4Kj-z0

Basically Amazon is massively hampered by FAA regulations that say they can't fly drones beyond operator line of sight. In other words, the remote pilot must be able to see the drone at all times. It's also that drone delivery was never meant to replace all deliveries. It's only specific use cases where it is economical, such as delivery to a lone, rural house, where sending a car would be time consuming and expensive. You can get waivers for the line of sight rule but it requires sophisticated auto-avoidance tech that they're still working on (that must handle automated avoidance in rain or shine, night and day, clouds or not, winds and so on). So it's massively hard problem that was never meant to be a whole "wave" of next gen delivery.


From a European perspective: regulation is just catching up. Risk assessment and safety frameworks have been established and (non-autonomous) beyond line of sight operations are slowly becoming feasible to do on a regular basis. Operating many drones (+ manned vehicles) in the same airspace needs a traffic management solution (U-Space) which is also seeing some initial trial runs now.


The flurry of excitement was before the FAA started actively regulating it.

Since then e.g. Amazon is stíll nominally pursuing it, but here's a recent article about how that's going: https://www.businessinsider.com/faa-restrictions-are-curtail...


It was always a gimmick with a very limited cost-effective timeline. In the future we will (rightly) view DoorDash and the like as a relic of a uniquely profligate era, I suspect, whether it is a drone or a car/driver delivering.

Sending life-saving medicine to a remote township with a drone makes sense. Drone-drop pizzas do not, given planetary circumstances. For that matter, neither does the whole institution of single-meal delivery.


I was working with drones for a while and one issue with carrying weight was distance. If you want a drone capable of carrying weight it has to have a specific size to accommodate the heavy object as well as batteries that get heavier the longer you want to fly and the more power you need to transport said object. Outside of that rules about line of sight were a thing, so you couldn’t just let the drone fly a pre-programmed path but you also needed to see it. There is also a risk of being shot down. I think at the end of the day search and rescue or coast guards might use drones to deliver something very quickly if there is no other way but outside of that I see challenges that are rather hard to overcome.


There's a lot of research done with drones but the world isn't quite ready yet. Realistically, drones delivering packages will get shot down in the US, simply for being unmanned and flying over people's neighbourhoods. People easily feel threatened.

Perhaps more importantly, there's too much that could go wrong. What about legislation where they may fly and how high? What if a drone crashes into someone or something? What if someone's package gets stolen?

As much as the technology enthusiasts in us enjoy the concept of delivery drones, most of us humans still prefer a fellow human in the process of delivering packages to handle edge cases where things might go wrong.


Honestly, I don't expect a lot of skeet practice in general. But you need to beat the cost of USPS and Amazon delivery trucks which seem pretty efficient and--if not zero liability--at least liability that's been well established over a good hundred years. It's theoretically cool but once you get out of medical deliveries to remote areas it's not clear how practical it is.


I have a hard time seeing how drones would be compatible with any society that places any value on silence or has any stance against noise pollution.

For example, how many people would have to hear the drone zipping by to deliver someone some hair scrunchies or paperclips or whatever? The asymmetry makes no sense to me long before you get into the other issues.


The noise issue is why I am very resistant to the entire idea of drone delivery. Drones are very noisy, and the kind of noise they make is particularly irritating and tends to go through walls pretty well. The idea of having to hear them around my home on a daily basis is far from appealing.


It's a problem you could solve with ion-wind and far-field wireless power transfer... or just blimps.


Same thing that happened to self driving cars, bloodless blood tests, the 'Metaverse', and 'Social Media but with Nice People'.

The point of the thing is to have an impossibile to achieve project that is nonetheless popular enough to generate endless rounds of new investment.


https://www.wired.com/story/drones-have-transformed-blood-de...

Not groceries, but blood delivery in Africa is a thing


Zeyi Yang from China Report at MIT Tech Review had a story on how well it's going in China: https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/05/23/1073500/drone-fo.... The BLUF is it still requires a fair amount of human labor and it works way better when it can go to a designated pickup point.

His teaser for the article also had a more detailed story about how he kept on getting human drivers delivering him milk teas when he wanted a drone, but that might just be an aside about the cost of human labor in China and how the system schedules the delivery method.


>The BLUF is it still requires a fair amount of human labor and it works way better when it can go to a designated pickup point.

If you need a designated pickup point, it would seem like the already-existing Amazon pickup box system would be a better choice.


We have autonomous robots that deliver groceries where we live, through a company called Starship.

They definitely felt like the future when they first arrived, zipping along the pavement or waiting patiently to cross a road. My daughter loves counting them as we drive past.


I seen some drones in Africa delivering small packages into remote villages, mostly medication. It is small RC airplane (not quad copter), dropping parashutes on an airfield. It replaced much bigger Cesnas.

And drone delivery is quite successful at Ukraine...


Wing seems to be making solid real-world progress. They regularly post updates to YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@Wing/videos


Every time I've heard about drone delivery; it was either implied or directly stated that it would take a long time to be generally available. It's easy to forget that, historically, "tech" would often take decades to develop. (The rapid changes we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s is unusual.)

One thing that I think would be interesting is "hybrid" drone delivery: A delivery truck could drive to a central location, and then a "swarm" of drones could drop off packages at homes within a small radius.


I would argue that the changes you refer to around the turn of the millennium were not in fact all that rapid, but rather the more publicly visible phase of a more gradual change that started no later than 1969 (when ARPANET went live), perhaps well before that date.


It's kinda here, Zipline is delivering high value products to places that don't have good infrastructure, and has gotten some big inventions in propeller designs to get rid of noise.


The technology hasn't demonstrated the required level of reliability yet. Several companies are getting close, and and early attempts by the companies listed in this thread have paved the way for the FAA to start rolling out the process for scalable compliance. Up until very recently it's all been "approval by waiver/exception", which is very slow, while the FAA figures out along with everyone else what success looks like.

Currently there's approvals in limited areas in the US for testing, and several companies are approved for significant steps towards our shared dream of 5 minute burrito deliveries to our back patios. Nobody has gotten approved for blanket deliveries yet; the safety levels aren't quite there.

Plug: End State Solutions consults and supports companies in developing the conops, safety case, and approval packages. Reach out once your drone company has a design you're ready to freeze for the approval process and we'll help you out. Our team got Insitu and Matternet the first ever commercial UAS type certificates issued by the FAA.


Great question. I'm not aware of any concrete reasons, but I suppose issues relating to these sorts of points:

- despite the sky being generally less constrained than ground delivery there are challenging obstructions, which are potentially far more risky than for ground travel: nudge past many ground obstructions you'd be okay, do the same in the sky, your drone is toast

- liability is far greater in the sky if your drone carrying something comes down in an uncontrolled manner (on someone or something)

- obstructions are likely to be high at the very points people are willing to come meet the drone (antennas, overhead power lines, washing lines, nets, etc) and they're often hard to spot

- unattended drop off is harder for drones in the places where customers are most dense (ie cities) upping the complexity further

- potential regulatory issues (but I understand below certain heights it's generally not regulated in many countries)

- bad PR from noisy drones!

- risks from non customers interfering

- challenges with carrying what you're dropping off: if it's heavy you need bigger drones; if it's light you'd be tying up a drone with something small, unless you can figure how to drop off multiple items, or you have a mixture of drone sizes

They all seem like they could plausibly be solved but I'm no drone engineer!

Maybe it could get going with targeting particular items that are strongly appealing to customers and might narrow the complexities due to being more uniform than a random Amazon basket. I believe an early use in Bhutan was for medical deliveries. Maybe something premium like ice-cream or cocktails might appeal with the right marketing?!


For small items, I sometimes get it delivered by an Amazon truck but a lot of the time it just comes from my USPS driver who is putting (mostly junk mail) in my inbox anyway.

Anything I get frozen gets sent in a relatively big box with dry ice or ice packs.


Drone delivery is alive and well - and high volume from my company Manna Drone Delivery.

Doing about 300 flights a day now in DUblin, and expanding soon to 1,000 a day.

Video of a weekends worth of deliveries here-: https://youtu.be/0lFT_K47Pa4


That's in a small town not Dublin proper, right? Gotta say that's a huge number of deliveries for a weekend in a place with only 30,000 people living there. Was that weekend during a special offer?


Do you have an actual video of one of your drones flying and delivering stuff?


Take a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCnpxmhWRuw - pretty high level but does show the deliveries in action.


There are still pretty serious technical and engineering hurdles to overcome to make this kind of idea feasible. It was always hype without substance. But even assuming these challenges were overcome, which is inevitable eventually even if it's a century from now, I get the feeling this would largely end up getting banned in many places. I think regular people hanging out in their backyards and going for walks in the neighborhood would feel a vague persistent menace if there were constantly drones zipping around overhead. Think about the fact that you can load up a delivery truck with hundreds of packages at a time. Drones don't have that kind of cargo capacity. The fleet would need to be massive to replace truck deliveries. The sky would be full of them.


There are food delivery drones near me. Two recent data points:

1) They’re expanding the delivery territory.

2) They’re still using pilots with line of sight to make the delivery.

I think that’s odd. Maybe someone is moving the goalposts, or maybe there’s not a clear roadmap to broad approval.


When you say "line of sight" do you mean via camera, or that someone literally has to drive out and watch the drone land? The latter seems to not make much sense but that's what I think of when I read the phrase.


Someone drives out and watches the drone land. If you order drinks, they bring them in the car.


Which seems to eliminate all of the benefits of drone delivery. If someone is driving out anyway, they could just deliver the stuff directly.


Well of course. I assume it's to prove the concept safe to gain approval to fly without a person present. But here we are, no such approval, and they're expanding territory. Why? To be challenged by more diversity in delivery situations? It doesn't seem like they have a clear path to success.


Ground delivery drones are making great strides. They're not uncommon in larger restaurants where I live, and they're also being used in the hotel industry for making deliveries from the front desk to someone's room. I expect we'll be seeing street delivery drones like this soon as well in very high density urban areas.

Aerial drone delivery however ends up requiring additional infrastructure and is far too expensive for what it's trying to accomplish, particularly because of the small payload requirements. Maybe that will change in the near future, but I still think we're a long way away.


There's a trial near me of ground-based autonomous delivery robots (though it doesn't cover my area) which seems to have been pretty successful. People are using it and it seems to work pretty well from what my friends in the area have said. There have of course been a few hiccups but nothing major (it helps that the delivery robots are cute and will ask for help if they are stuck or need something like a button pushing to use a pedestrian crossing). The main limitation is that their range is only about 2 miles so they basically are only really saving you a quick trip to a nearby shop.


There was a recent How I Built This podcast about Zipline who is doing this. They're doing some real deliveries. https://pca.st/6imicbz4


I posit two major reasons.

1. Command and control - Human in the loop is still a necessity because common delivery environments are too complex for an algorithm to navigate successfully so far.

2. Energy - it takes too long to recharge a drone battery pack. Flying is very energy intensive and there just isn't a way to refuel fast enough from the hub for this to make sense yet. The tested, working alternative is to use a two stroke engine but the pollution per mile from those is astronomical.


DHL was the only major German logistics company that openly talked about their delivery drone research project, which had been going on for years until they killed it in 2021. They never gave a specific reason for pulling out, but people with industry knowledge said that one of the reasons was that due to limitations of airspace vs. billions of packages the German logistics industry handles, drone delivery at scale is not going to be a thing.


I saw this video clip recently and it looks like people are building the infrastructure in the background.

Reliable ground based sensors are an important area being addressed.

https://twitter.com/thehbarbull/status/1659167041062944770/m...


Drones are promising for longer-range deliveries, where they gain some competitive efficiencies. The Rangelov brothers' Dronamics is doing really cool work in that space.

https://foundersfactory.com/articles/dronamics/


It's funny cause those talks happened when labor was relatively cheaper, similar with the "we'll just replace fast food workers with robots."

Now that labor is even less readily available we're talking about it... less. And that's even off that back of low interest rates and easier money for such initiatives.


delivery of drugs across flood ravaged infrastructure, or for temporary wifi/cell antenna (ruinously costly in battery life) -check.

checking wildlife with lower impact, finding wildlife and feral animals and lost hikers -check

taking aerial photos for weddings and documentaries -check

routine, bladerunner-esque floods of drones sending me parcels.. un-checked.


My friend had coffee delivered via drone (Canberra, Australia) and it was pretty fun. Certainly feels less wasteful (energetically) than a car & driver. The massive drone was pretty cool, too. That being said, Canberra is probably the perfect city for a drone delivery service, with so much open space.


I don't know if it has been shared in this thread but Mark Rober did a video earlier this year about drones actively doing medical deliveries in Africa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOWDNBu9DkU


The sidewalk way exists in some places.

https://cocodelivery.com/

https://www.starship.xyz/


I think that Wendover has the best summary: https://youtu.be/J-M98KLgaUU

Here's the tl;dr:

The "last foot" problem is the biggest killer. Getting a drone into the air and to its target is not the hard problem - getting a package safely to the ground at someone's home is.

It would require either a very specific neighborhood or a big advance in computer vision and AI tech.

Where we have seen success in this space are places with dedicated delivery zones in controlled environments where existing transport infrastructure is not a good alternative.

Also this quote: "most people are simply willing to wait two or three days to receive their package while ALL customers wants their packages delivered as cheaply and simply as possible."

Uber eats and door dash largely solve the problem that drone delivery was supposed to solve and if you're going to have autonomous delivery doing it via ground robots is much easier than trying to do it from a drone.


And I'm pretty sure none of those prepared food or even meal kit companies actually made money so once the free money evaporated people weren't generally willing to pay what it cost to get a cold soggy hamburger delivered.


We have some where I live (Flytrex in Durham). It's a pretty fun and occasionally useful novelty but - FAA regulations mean a driver has to come watch it deliver the food so - not quite ready for prime time.


All the drones are in Ukraine and are delivering bombs to the the enemy.


It's probably because exploiting humans with offering them "gig work" is still cheaper... that and bribing^W lobbying lawmakers to allow continuation said exploitation.


The first time a drone is ingested into a jet engine, the news headlines will explode and all drones will be grounded for a long time, if not forever.

Only takes one not following rules.


I was thinking about this as everyone is talking about A.I. Taking over and being the next big thing. Ironic how I googled about drones and this came up


It's a bit like all the "new" airship startups, every year or so (for the last 25) I've heard of another one starting up.


Im sure it turned out just not to be profitable, and thank goodness. Would be absolutely hellish having them buzzing around regularly.


A brief survey of the replies in this comment thread (beyond the dismissive comments) reveals that there are in fact several small scale and ongoing uses of delivery drones in a variety of urban and rural settings. It's obviously not a mass market yet but there are enough of those that you can't simply dismiss the technology as unworkable. Because clearly there are some minor successes here and there.

There are a few things where you could expect some progress to happen over time:

- FAA regulations are evolving and called out as an obstacle. But that's just the US of course. Keep an eye on countries like China which is in any case where a lot of the components are being developed. They are not waiting for FAA approval over there. And that's also the reason you can expect the FAA to be adapting over time.

- Cost is a big factor. The war time use of drones is a case where the use case justifies a higher cost as it means exposing less humans to enemy fire. Losses are high and yet it seems a highly successful niche use for drones even with the current state of the art in technology. Drones are being used successfully in places like the Ukraine, Yemen, and in other conflict zones. As cost comes down, that also opens up more civilian use cases.

- Battery tech is improving. CATL recently launched a 500wh/kg battery product intended for drone companies. Mass production of these is probably going to be a few years down the line. But the technology is shipping this year and not just some proof of concept kind of thing. For most current drones, that would be a doubling of battery capacity; which is a big deal of course. Bigger batteries are under development by a range of companies. Higher capacity, faster charging, lower cost, etc. batteries are coming to market.

- Several cities now have autonomous taxis. Both inside and outside the US. China especially seems very bullish and aggressive on this front. Mostly that's aimed at human transport but the extension to goods delivery seems like it's a logical next step. This stuff seems to be ramping up in more and more cities over the next decade or so.

- A lot of factories already deploy autonomous vehicles on factory floors. Particularly automotive companies have been investing in this. Mostly that's about delivering parts in the workplace.

- Companies like Tesla, Boston Dynamics, etc. have been developing autonomous robots that can move around and operate in more chaotic places. It seems like these could ultimately also get involved in delivery use cases.

So, the future is coming. It might not be in the form some people are expecting. Or happening at the (unrealistic) pace they seem to be expecting it. Hardware just isn't like software. It takes time to develop and it takes more time to ramp up manufacturing. And you don't do that before you have a market. The road from a handful to hundreds to thousands to hundreds of thousands units is just very long and not a straight line.

There is a lot of stuff happening right now. And we're past the point where you can dismiss a lot of this stuff as impossible because there are countless working proofs of concept and real world products challenging that notion already.


When a drone gets ingested by a jet engine, all drones will be grounded for a long time, if not forever.

It only takes one not following the rules.


Exploiting people is cheap enough for now.


I fully expect "discourse" on this topic to magically find its way back into the news cycle should labour strikes in the US spread to UPS and other freight unions.


I'm not sure people would tolerate their cities being filled with constant annoying drone buzzing.


A ton of companies wanted to basically do intracity delivery but with with drones. It’s crazy hard airspace, hard from a technical standpoint wrt obstacle avoidance, and ultimately you’re competing against going downstairs and getting your own toothpaste. There’s not a ton of margin.

There were also a lot of efforts at more rural delivery schemes but mostly they’re working with quadcopter or hybrid designs which requires a ton of mass being dedicated to power. This restricts your flight time to about 30min and payload to a couple pounds (with some trade off function allowing more or less of one or the other). Even without regulation this means your delivery radius is on the order of a couple miles which means you’re competing against getting in the car or waiting a day.

I think the drone delivery concept is (without magic batteries) DOA if you’re talking about electric powered drones to areas that already have good 0-2 day options to get the thing you’re talking about delivering.

Using gas powered autonomous drones to deliver large payloads to remote areas with decent landing spots seems viable. I’m working on an air to ground glider drone prototype that can maybe be useful for “too far/logistically difficult for fast ground delivery but doesn’t have a prepared strip” but that requires being dropped from an aircraft so it needs to be worth the fractional cost of the flight etc.

Tl;dr: The power required to fly things, battery power density, and the geographical distribution of demand for delivery don’t seem to love each other.


The people who pumped it up made enough money from the pump that they moved on to the next shiny.


Ron Swanson quietly saved us all. You wouldn't know it, because he'll seek no credit.


It wasn't going to happen to begin with cuz it was a dumb idea conceived by teenagers


Fed increased rates, and the idea didn't make sense without so much free money.


As with most of robotics, it's cheaper and easier to get humans to do it.


Currently delivery drones are working overtime in Ukraine.


Couldn't it have been COVID and the markets crashing?


it was determined that the drones created too much wind, worsening the global airspeed crisis. hard to justify them after that.


They're working quite well in Ukraine


Indeed. And where’s my flying car?


The margins aren’t there yet


Are you kidding me? It was all basically vaporware that disappeared when the free money ended. The Kiwi food delivery robots were basically fake -- they only went about 1/8 of a mile automatically. So they'd drive a car to the end of a street with your food and a robot, and then get the robot out of the car, put the food inside, and then the robot would hobble over a couple hundred feet to your door. Absolutely useless.

From https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Kiwibots-win-fa...

> The Kiwibots do not figure out their own routes. Instead, people in Colombia, the home country of Chavez and his two co-founders, plot “waypoints” for the bots to follow, sending them instructions every five to 10 seconds on where to go

> On the ground in Berkeley, people also do a lot of robot support. Traveling at 1 to 1½ mph, the bots would take too long to chug to local restaurants, so Kiwi workers pick up the food at restaurants and take it via bikes or scooters to meeting spots around campus to insert into an insulated bag in the bots’ storage compartment.

> The average distance a robot covers for a delivery is about 200 meters (656 feet, or one-eighth of a mile) which makes them fall short of a “last-mile” solution.


Much like Theranos, basic immutable laws of nature make the whole idea absurd. Namely, that it requires a ton of energy to keep an object aloft.

It's just wildly inefficient, and will never see serious usage outside of tiny niches. Not until we get science fiction antigravity or tiny fusion reactors or something.


Doesn't it also require a ton of energy to move a five ton truck to my driveway in order to deliver a 100g charging cable?

I'm not sure the laws of physics are on the side of the status quo here.


Hovering like a drone has to overcome gravity, which is hard/expensive. A truck only has to overcome rolling friction, which is easy/cheap.


I would bet that even the worst Amazon truck gets more pounds of product per Joule expended than the best drone for any reasonably real world distance/load.


The difference is both direct ground contact and fuel capacity.

Even if a drone could carry the energy equivalent of a 20 gallon fuel tank with it, it would waste the majority of that energy both keeping itself and its energy aloft.

Tires and other ground plane vehicles, mitigate the majority of that waste in exchange for increased navigational difficulty (regarding obstacles like buildings and trees but also moving objects like vehicles in its path).

The self-driving robots made some sense but only for very local (couple of block radius) delivery.


And fixed-wing aircraft are substantially more efficient than rotorcraft.


Anything that does not have to be constantly and continuously pumped with more energy in order to not immediately crash is going to be more efficient than the alternative.

A paraglider drone with a tiny parachute would be more efficient than any 3/4/6/8 motor drone copter


As usual, the difference is energy density between hydrocarbon fuels and Li-ion batteries. Power the drone with gas and it becomes a different story. But then you just re-created the helicopter and all the problems which explain why no one is doing helicopter package deliveries.


you probably paid at least $5 for that cable, but the cost of materials in the cable was likely less than a dollar

the rest of the money went into the gas tank of the truck

you and everyone else who ordered a cable that day on that route chipped in to fill the truck up


winning response. Thank you for the clarity and simplicity.


Amazon's delivery always felt odd to me because of this exact situation. Long term how sustainable can it be to work on such an extreme scale like that? The margins they must be hiding on via products must be good.


Ironically one of the areas it _is_ being used successfully is in delivery of blood to some areas in Rwanda, but they're using fixed-wing drones and are even doing slingshot launches. [1]

The economics are totally different, though. The "product" is very high value and has a short shelf life, so being able to deliver it quickly is a big benefit.

On top of that, using a fixed-wing delivery vehicle and launching it with a human-powered slingshot makes it actually reasonably energy-efficient.

[1]https://youtu.be/bnoUBfLxZz0


From the same channel https://youtu.be/J-M98KLgaUU

See also https://youtu.be/DOWDNBu9DkU From 3 months ago


Wait why does it require antigravity to deliver some groceries on a drone?


Kiwibots were little wheeled robots that rolled along the sidewalk.


While this may be correct when all possible types of deliveries (weight/distance/geography) are taken into account there are definitely cases where drone delivery is going to be substantially cheaper than similar delivery by vehicle.

Maybe it's my proximity to large bodies of water, but there are many island communities where I live that have limited (or no) road access requiring either a very out-of-the-way route to reach a destination or -- worse -- a ferry. A trip out to some communities could be the difference between a mile travel by air vs 10 miles travel by vehicle.

That's an extreme outlier, obviously, but if you dial that back a bit and use, say, "a trip from my home to my girlfriend's" which involves working around two rivers that roads only cross at certain points, the difference is 5 miles "as the crow flies" vs almost 14 miles of windy roads.

When all of the other problems are worked out, a drone delivery service could augment regular delivery to reduce costs/improve delivery time for products.

I think products that greatly benefit from improved delivery time, though, is the place where drone delivery can be successful. It's currently being used in some countries for blood/medical deliveries and that was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of places where drone delivery would be able to be compete/displace existing providers.

I had a friend who flew a helicopter for a company that moved people/organs/other emergency-releated activities for hospitals. Organ transplants, as I understand them, are extremely time-sensitive. One day he was called on to deliver a liver from a hospital nearby to a hospital mid-state for a waiting patient. Weather, wind, clouds and other variables were excellent; he was on-call and a ways out but made it. Shortly after take-off the helicopter suffered a failure (memory escapes me), it crashed resulting in the death of my friend, (I think) a passenger and ultimately the patient waiting for the organ.

This was 20-ish years ago and in the time since then it was discovered that part of the pre-flight check was skipped and IIRC[0] the crash was determined to be related to condensation in the fuel tank or something along those lines -- basically, he was on-call with a tight delivery schedule and cut a corner to account for the time it took him to get to the hospital for the delivery.

Drone delivery would improve several things in this model. The most obvious one being "no dead pilot or passenger" when something goes awry. If we're "flying things around" especially using small aircraft and GA pilots, there's going to be crashes -- drones or people involved -- it's a guarantee. Using drones would enable deliveries to take place without delays involved in "waking up a pilot on-call/waiting for their arrival" -- allowing hospital staff to prepare the delivery vehicle, make a call, and hand off to a remote drone pilot to get it to its destination. Assuming software/user interfaces can make piloting a drone remotely as safe as flying a helicopter "in person", the benefits would be enough to offset the higher delivery costs.

[0] I tried to find a reference online to refresh my memory but was unable so forgive my memory if I've got some details wrong here.


Surprisingly, I still see them around in Berkeley. As a pedestrian they're a bit annoying underfoot but mostly harmless. As a potential customer, they're so slow and ineffective that I've never felt tempted to try them out. They're thoroughly dull even as a novelty.


Hmm, I don't live there anymore but have visited the university a few times lately. Haven't seen any Kiwi bots. Last time was this month, which is summer and not peak business there, but other times were during school.


Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I've seen the bots a couple times over the last few weeks.


> > > The Kiwibots do not figure out their own routes. Instead, people in Colombia, the home country of Chavez and his two co-founders, plot “waypoints” for the bots to follow, sending them instructions every five to 10 seconds on where to go

ooh ooh! When people say reporting can be racist, this is a perfect example! Including extra negative details that are not pertinent to the story at all.

Imagine if every story about a US company mentioned started with, "The new startup, which is based in the United States (home of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy)..."

See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_fallacy#Guilt_by_a...

SFChronicle could have instead opened with: "people in Colombia (a country with free childcare)" or "people in Colombia (a country that has worked to eliminate childhood hunger)", but, instead, blatant racism!


Felipe Chavez is the CEO and one of the founders of the company they're talking about. That's why they mention his two co-founders. All from Columbia.

From your examples I assume you thought they were talking about the Chavez from Venezuela? I don't know of any other Chavez that could get that kind of reaction. Anyway, unless I've missed something, that hair trigger might need some adjustment.


> Imagine if every story about a US company mentioned started with, "The new startup, which is based in the United States (home of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy)..."

If Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy founded a company together then your headline would make sense, but I don't understand why this would compare to anything the author of this article wrote.


I think you ran across the Chavez name and your brain stopped processing. Its evident in your replacement examples not even making sense in the original quote.

It seems you may be the one having issues with race.


This is a silly comment and a perfect example of seeing only what you want to see. The founder’s name is “Chavez” - he’s not referencing Hugo Chavez here.


Is this a joke? Are you thinking of Venezuela? What is going on


> ooh ooh! When people say reporting can be racist, this is a perfect example! Including extra negative details that are not pertinent to the story at all.

Hold your excitement. Chavez is the CEO.


quintessential social justice moment


How does it feel to be an illiterate among the educated?


They... failed to deliver (I'll see myself out)




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