Delivery by Drone

Around the world, quadcopters are turning into mail carriers.

Pigeons fly alongside DHL's parcelcopter during trials in 2013. (Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay)
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Drones have been in the delivery business since they were invented, delivering data, imagery, and, more recently, ordnance. But two years ago on “60 Minutes,” when Jeff Bezos showed a warehouse full of drones stamped with the Amazon arrow and announced half-hour commercial delivery by as early as 2017, the possibilities for cargo drones seemed to instantly expand.

What didn’t expand was airspace. Under today’s Federal Aviation Administration regulations, operators may apply for a Section 333 Exemption, which allows them “to perform commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments.” Significantly, the rules bar operators “from allowing any object to be dropped from” a drone.

So how plausible are delivery drones, really? Flying packages in an urban area is fraught with challenges: Go too high and the drone could interfere with an airliner’s airspace; too low and it has to navigate around buildings and trees—not to mention people who would like to snag a drone in addition to its package.

The hazards haven’t stopped dozens of companies from running trials—or staging publicity stunts. You decide which of the following is which.

Yodela Yheehoo! Here's Your Package

The Silicon Valley-based company Matternet has conducted trials in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, and Bhutan for delivering humanitarian aid. “Imagine Mother Teresa meets ‘The Jetsons’ ” is how company co-founder Paola Santana described the trials at a meeting of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International last July.

Most recently, Matternet has partnered with Swiss Post and Swiss WorldCargo; the trio will test small package delivery this summer in Switzerland, using multiple Matternet ONE drones. The drones can carry a two-pound package up to 12 miles on a single battery charge. Matternet has ambitious goals, which company co-founder Andreas Raptopoulos outlined in a 2013 TED talk: The company will provide customers with the vehicles themselves (about $5,000 each) and wants to set up automated ground systems, as well as design an operating system that would manage the entire network.

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