It’s been almost four years since Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos appeared on the TV news program 60 Minutes and startled the nation by predicting that his company would be delivering merchandise to customers’ homes by autonomous drones “by 2017.”
Well, it’s 2017, so what happened? Lots, and not much, seems to be the answer. Bezos’ vision that mini-drones—technically, octocopters – would pick up packages under five pounds at participating Amazon fulfillment centers and deliver items to individual customers within a 15-mile radius in no more than 30 minutes after they hit the “buy” button remains futuristic.
The company began testing the idea in 2015 in the UK – which, at least for now, has friendlier air drone regulations than the US – and is operating a small-scale test service in the Cambridge area. The first successful delivery came on 7th December 2016. Amazon Prime Air has done a lot of testing in remote locations in America too but is still not to delivering to actual customers. Progress has been slow.
No shrinking violet when it comes to harebrained futuristic projects, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is also testing a delivery service, called Wing, a project of the search giant’s moonshot division, X, that aims to create an online retail center called Wing Marketplace where orders from companies like Whole Foods and Dominos and, hopefully, thousands of other businesses will be delivered by drones on demand for a $6 fee. The current status of the project appears to be “Good luck with that.”
The reality is that neither Amazon nor Google or anyone else are anywhere near large-scale implementation of commercial autonomous drone delivery. And they may never be. There are huge stumbling blocks to be overcome before copies of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and cheese/pepperoni combos begin landing on your front porch.
The first and most important concern is safety. Flying objects are dangerous, especially autonomous ones. Suppose a drone hits a bird or a tree and malfunctions and falls on someone’s roof, or an automobile or a cocker spaniel? What about storms and high winds? There is not a lot of data around that supports the notion that having dozens of small, unmanned aircraft buzzing around a neighborhood is not a public safety issue. Laws have to be written and passed, lawsuits settled, permitting would almost have to be done on a location by location basis.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is writing new regulations about drones but is nowhere near a final product. Current US regulations require drones to fly no higher than 400 ft, no faster than 100 mph, and remain within the pilot’s line of sight. Line of sight is considerably less than the 15-mile delivery radius that Amazon anticipates.
A second problem is simple economics. One human being dressed in Bermuda shorts, armed with a hand truck, and driving a large squarish vehicle can deliver hundreds of packages to a concentrated neighborhood in any given day. Can a drone with a maximum capacity of five pounds really make enough roundtrips to match the lowly deliveryman in efficiency and economy?
Zipline to the rescue
There is at least one emerging drone delivery success story, however, and it involves a California-based automated logistics company called Zipline. Last Thursday, the government of Tanzania announced that it had contracted with Zipline to build and operate the world’s largest drone delivery service to provide emergency on-demand access to critical and life-saving medicines to Tanzanian citizens.
Beginning in the first quarter of 2018, Zipline will begin using drones to make life-saving on-demand deliveries of blood transfusion supplies, emergency vaccines, HIV medications, anti-malarials and critical medical supplies like sutures and IV tubes to over one thousand health facilities, serving 10 million people across the country.
Working in conjunction with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and the country’s Medical Stores Department (MSD), Zipline will establish four distribution centers across the country–each equipped with up to 30 drones, capable of making up to 500 on-demand delivery flights a day. The drones can carry 3.3 pounds of cargo, cruising at 70 mph an hour, and have a round trip range of 100 miles.
Health workers place delivery orders by text message and receive their package within 30 minutes on average. Zipline’s drones take off and land at the distribution center only, requiring no additional infrastructure at the clinics it serves. Deliveries happen from the sky, with the drone descending close to the ground and air dropping the medicine to a designated spot near the health centers. Laurean Bwanakunu, Director General of Tanzania’s Medical Stores Department, said:
We strive to ensure that all 5,640 public health facilities have all the essential medicines, medical supplies and laboratory reagents they need, wherever they are—even in the most the hard to reach areas. But that mission can be a challenge during emergencies, times of unexpected demand, bad weather, or for small but critical orders. Using drones for just-in-time deliveries will allow us to provide health facilities with complete access to vital medical products no matter the circumstance.
Founded in 2011 as Romotive, Zipline first gained some fame as the maker of Romo, an iPhone-powered robotic pet. But CEO Keller Rinaudo and his cofounders William Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek began looking around for something that would have a greater social impact. They discovered that many people around the world die each year from lack of access to life-saving and critical health products because of what is known as the last-mile problem: the inability to deliver needed medicine from a city to rural or remote locations due to lack of adequate transportation, communication or supply chain infrastructure.
They soon were scouring the developing world to learn where and how drone-based logistics could help save lives. Said Rinaudo:
Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it. It’s a problem in both developed and developing countries. But it’s a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery. And African nations are showing the world how it’s done.
Zipline formed a partnership with the UPS Foundation, which gave the company an $800,000 grant, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to study the feasibility of concept. In October of 2016, Zipline and the Government of Rwanda launched the world’s first national drone delivery service to make on-demand emergency blood deliveries to transfusion clinics across the country. Since the October launch, Zipline has flown more than 62,000 miles in Rwanda, delivering 2,600 units of blood in over 1,400 flights.
It’s probably too early to pronounce Zipline a roaring success but the company is far enough along to suggest that there is a need and market for autonomous drone delivery services—it’s just not what or where Amazon and Google think it is. This will probably not discourage them from burning a lot more money before giving up.
Zipline has a lot of smart money behind it, including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Jerry Yang, Paul Allen, and Stanford University.
And, how can you not love a company whose mission statement is: “…is to build instant delivery for the planet, allowing medicines and other products to be delivered on-demand and at low cost without using a drop of gasoline.”
Image credit - Zipline