Friday, September 23, 2016

The future of delivery drones is on wheels

While much attention has been paid to the the idea of Amazon's flying delivery drones, the real future of drones is much closer to Earth. I firmly believe that the vast majority of delivery drones in the future will travel along the ground, a trend that's just starting thanks to Starship Technologies. From Recode:
Starship Technologies, an Estonia-based startup created by two Skype co-founders, Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, is slated to begin testing its autonomous delivery robot to bring groceries and restaurant takeout to Washington, D.C., homes and businesses this fall. It’s the first U.S. municipality to approve ground-based robots to roll around on city sidewalks.
Starship hopes to solve the “last mile” problem –– the work of getting packages from the fulfillment center directly to people’s homes — currently done by humans. It’s a problem Amazon wants to solve with drones, but the FAA’s rules bar drones from flying around humans without an operator in line of sight. But with ground-based delivery, Starship’s founders say, there’s less that can go wrong.
Basically the only advantage a flying delivery drone has over a delivery drone on wheels is that it can travel in a straight line and theoretically will deal with fewer obstacles in the way.  
Now compare this to the numerous serious downsides to flying:
  • Flying is significantly more energy-intensive, which should increase cost and limit range.
  • Flying drones will never be able to carry as much as a drone on wheels.
  • Flying is dramatically more dangerous. If a 40 pound cooler on wheels ran into you, it might leave a bruise; if a 40 pound drone drops 50 feet out of the sky on you, that could kill you.
  • This means flying drones will be more expensive to insure. 
  • It also means the risk of a big PR disaster is bigger.
  • Failure in flying is more catastrophic. If battery in a wheeled drone dies, it stops in the middle of the sidewalk; if that happens to a flying drone, it could fall out of the sky.
  • So flying drones should likely require more maintenance checks.
  • As the article points out, the added danger of flying means such drones will likely face more regulatory issues.
There is a good reason people and goods are mainly moved around on wheels and not by helicopters. As of yet there has been no technological development to change this basic issue of physics.

1 comment:

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