Maron kristófersson is looking forward to the completion of a new roof on his office in downtown Reykjavik. It is not that the old roof leaked, but rather that the new one will be heated. Mr Kristófersson is the boss of aha, which delivers on behalf of restaurants and shops in Iceland’s capital. The heated roof will let his delivery drones take off from and land on the top of the building throughout the winter, without anyone having to clear away the snow.
When drones, in the form of small, electrically powered rotorcraft, came to public attention around a decade ago, various uses were proposed for them. Some of these, such as surveying, aerial photography and law enforcement, have now become routine. But one, in particular, has not. This is the idea of household deliveries. In 2013 Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, said that the online retailer was testing just such a system. Others suggested using drones to deliver medicines and fast food. Apart from various demonstration flights, however, not much then happened.
This slowness was caused less by technological inadequacy than by caution on the part of regulators. In most countries people are not allowed to fly drones above other people, near buildings or out of sight of the operator. Commercial activities are strictly regulated and some flights need clearance from aviation authorities. This has kept drone operators on a tight leash while regulators got to grips with what is, after all, a new form of aviation. Slowly but surely, however, as operators have gained experience and established a good safety record, some regulators have begun to relax the rules.
Iceland is a typical example. In August 2017 Mr Kristófersson teamed up with Flytrex, an Israeli drone-service company. The pair persuaded Iceland’s transport authorities to let them start a drone delivery service across Elliðárvogur, an inlet that divides Reykjavik from its eastern suburbs. Delivery drivers would load goods weighing up to 3kg into a drone on one side of the inlet and it would fly autonomously along a fixed route to land on the other side, where the goods would be collected by another team of drivers who would take them on to their final destinations.
“We learnt a lot,” said Mr Kristófersson. One thing was the impact of weather. Iceland is often wet and windy, but the drone used for this operation could not fly in rain—and for safety reasons aha avoided gusty conditions. This meant that the drone was grounded for about half of the time it might otherwise have been flying. Nevertheless, when it could fly it saved time and money because the flight took four minutes instead of the 20 or more required to drive around Elliðárvogur.
Dinner is on its way
The experience they gained in running the trans-Elliðárvogur service allowed aha and Flytrex to obtain permission to run 12 other routes across Reykjavik, including journeys over land. And operations have just been extended again, permitting drones to deviate by up to 700 metres either side of those fixed routes. This means deliveries can now be made to the backyards of registered customers who have also obtained their neighbours’ permission for flights to pass overhead.
Those customers can order goods using online apps and, weather permitting, select a drone delivery. Most of the shops and restaurants taking part are close to aha’s office, where they drop off goods to be delivered. These are then loaded into a drone by a company employee, who dispatches the craft after entering the destination using a hand-held device. The customer gets a message to say the drone is on its way, and can use the app to follow its progress on a map. When it arrives, the customer enters a pin into the app to accept delivery and the drone lowers its package on a line. Should someone try to pull the line, it detaches in order to avoid crashing the drone.
With a third drone on order—this one a waterproof version that can fly in the rain—Mr Kristófersson hopes to deliver to more places more often, with the potential of as many as 100 flights a day. The drones, made by dji,a Chinese firm, do not use cameras or radar to navigate. They rely solely on the Global Positioning System (gps) to know where they are—though, for safety’s sake, they have three, independent gps-based systems on board. But even though the drones fly out of sight of aha’s office, they are monitored constantly during their journeys and can be recalled if something appears to be going wrong, or ordered to make an emergency landing by slowly fluttering down while broadcasting a loud warning noise.
Yariv Bash, Flytrex’s boss, says delivery-by-drone services which, like the Icelandic example, start with fixed routes that gradually become more ambitious, are beginning to appear in other places. His company, for example, is about to help launch one that will use drones to deliver packages in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Uber, a ride-hailing service, is also planning to launch drone deliveries for food.
Next month, in Singapore, a drone made by Airbus, a European aerospace group, will begin ferrying supplies and spare parts to ships moored offshore. Airbus is working on the project with Wilhelmsen, a marine-services company. Wilhelmsen reckons that using drones will reduce delivery costs to vessels by up to 90%, and will be safer than employing launches to carry those deliveries by sea. Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce firm, is making drone deliveries on a number of fixed routes across the vast Shanghai Jinshan Industrial Park and has plans to launch similar operations in other areas.
A common factor among these new drone services is that they are not operating in densely built-up areas. Despite the early predictions that drones would be used to deliver fast food and other goods to city-dwellers, the reality is turning out to be rather different. For a start, there are flight restrictions on all aircraft in high-rise areas like Manhattan and central London. There is also the difficulty of finding places for drones to land or hover outside apartment windows. Nor do the economics stack up. In cities, typical distances for delivering fast food might be under a kilometre, which makes it efficient to use mopeds or bicycles. Reykjavik, however, is a low-rise, spread-out sort of place. The average distance over which a meal is delivered is about 7km.
If regulators continue to relax requirements for line-of-sight operations, long-distance delivery by drone will become particularly appealing. In some cases, though, a different sort of drone may be needed. One such has just completed six months of test flights in Tanzania. This drone is built by Wingcopter, a German firm, and is of a type known as a “tilt-rotor”. That means it uses its rotors for vertical take-off and landing, but for horizontal flight it tilts them forward to operate like the propellers of an aeroplane. This arrangement, which is beginning to be used for manned helicopters as well, results in a big increase in speed and range. In neighbouring Rwanda, meanwhile, a firm called Zipline does not even bother with vertical take-off. Its drones are small, fixed-wing aircraft that are launched by catapult, fly to their destination, drop their cargo by parachute and then return home.
In the Tanzanian trials ,dhl, an international delivery company, used a Wingcopter to fly medical supplies from Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria, some 60km to a clinic on Ukerewe Island. Blood and other samples from the clinic’s patients were then flown back to Mwanza for laboratory analysis. The drone journey took 40 minutes, compared with six hours by road and ferry. Zipline, meanwhile, is beyond the stage of trials. Its drones are now in regular use delivering blood for transfusion to rural clinics.
Flying life-saving medical supplies around is, to be sure, more important than getting pizzas to customers while they are still hot. But with technology improving, and provided that operators can continue to run safe operations, more companies are likely to follow in aha’s footsteps and move into the business of delivering by drone.
Safety, too, is improving all the time. Drones can already be “ring-fenced” electronically to stop them straying into dangerous areas, such as airports. Small, automated collision-avoidance systems are also under development, to prevent them crashing into things. Eventually, no doubt, drones that can safely navigate the canyons of tall cities will emerge. But for the immediate future, it is the hungry folk in the ’burbs and out in the sticks who will have first call on the drone-delivery option on their fast-food apps.