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.

Oil Pan, Pronto

FPS, an auto parts retailer and distributor with more than 120 dealerships in the U.K., made the first commercial delivery in the United Kingdom by drone on March 13, 2015.

FPS asked Droneflight to help make a concept video using two drones: a DJI s1000 to depict the delivery, and a DJI Inspire to film the event.

“The idea wasn’t to actually make a legal delivery with a product inside,” says Andrew Griffiths, managing director of Droneflight. “The idea was to just illustrate the concept rather than actually do it for real. But while we were working on the storyboard and planning the video, we noticed that one of the FPS customers—Brakeline—was about 70 meters [229 feet] away from their building.

“So we looked at all of the stuff Brakeline had ordered for something that was the appropriate size and weight, and did fly it over,” says Griffiths. “It was all within a safe area, and all within a visual line of sight, but it was a real delivery with a real product. Brakeline had no idea it would be delivered by drone.”

The DJI s1000 is typically used for photography, and isn’t something FPS would likely use as a delivery drone in the future. A lightweight box had to be fitted to the drone, which limited the size of the product that could be carried.

The film shows the drone taking off within FPS’s warehouse and flying over bucolic fields toward its destination. The film takes some artistic license, admits Griffiths. For instance, it doesn’t show that the metal shelving in the warehouse interfered with the drone’s compass. “Anything you see in the film isn’t necessarily what happened,” says Griffiths. “The drone looks like it’s flying over fields in the middle of nowhere, and obviously it was flying over fields in the middle of nowhere, but not in a single flight.”

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