Why urban drone deliveries are an insane idea - flying above the hype

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton August 31, 2021
Drone disciples may be evangelical in their fervor about the use of the technology for urban delivery, but there are many reasons to be agnostic, if not a downright atheist on the subject.


Drones can enhance our lives in many ways. These include delivering critical supplies to remote or isolated communities, monitoring crops and livestock, transporting donated organs swiftly across cities, assisting in search and rescue operations, patrolling rail networks and offshore installations, transforming the video sector, and helping engineers inspect buildings without the need for scaffolding. Drones can even put emergency Wi-Fi networks in the air as part of a disaster response.

All these applications of the technology are great ideas that pass the common-sense test. But one that does not is local or last-mile urban deliveries, and yet it is the one most pushed by entrepreneurs and policymakers at drone conferences.

Proponents claim that drones will take thousands of gas-guzzling, polluting vans off city streets – a good idea in itself – and deliver packages to consumers within 30 minutes inside a 15-mile radius. Yet despite the apparent promise of instant, green consumer gratification, the idea is completely unworkable.

The first reason is simple math, as previously reported on diginomica. To recap, take just three of the many companies testing drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in North America: Amazon Prime, FedEx, and UPS. Between them, these giants deliver 10 billion packages a year in the US by traditional means.

If, hypothetically, just 10% of those were delivered by drone, there would be one billion drone flights a year in the crowded airspace above America’s cities. Why? Because most of these devices are designed to carry single payloads. That’s 2.7 million flights every day.  

Yet if only one percent of packets were delivered by drone, it would still mean 270,000 flights a day over US cities by our three example companies. Even that tiny percentage of all deliveries would represent a colossal increase in air traffic. Even before the pandemic, there were fewer than 6,000 piloted passenger flights a day in the US, and 100,000 worldwide.  

In other words, if only one percent of the packages delivered by just three firms in the US arrived by drone, there would be three times more drones in America’s skies daily than there are passenger planes flying in the entire world. 

And that would still leave 99% of those companies’ packets being delivered by road, barely denting the problems of urban traffic congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gases. (While we are on that topic, could millions of large, battery-powered delivery drones be manufactured sustainably and later recycled? That seems unlikely.)

Take off at scale

However, the above figures would be an underestimate if urban drone deliveries take off at scale, because countless other firms, including the world’s biggest company by revenue, Walmart, are exploring the concept. If only a tiny percentage of those companies’ deliveries were to arrive by air, the sky would be full of drones.

Remember: we are not talking about small hobbyist devices, but remotely piloted or autonomous aircraft, most with payloads of up to 5lbs/2.2kg (which constitute up to 90%of e-commerce deliveries, according to Amazon Prime). 

Bear in mind too that an electric or hydrogen-fuelled van – driver operated or autonomous – might carry many dozens of packages from door to door in a single, city-wide journey. By comparison, most battery-powered drones would drop off their one payload before returning to base and recharging.

From these perspectives alone, single-payload delivery drones make no sense at all, especially when a rider on an electric scooter or bike could carry more items across a city centre and get to locations almost as quickly – certainly fast enough for most consumer items.

For a local or last-mile drone delivery model to be viable, a central warehouse or delivery hub would have to be built in each location, containing all the most common goods ordered by consumers in cities. A term exists for such a facility: your local supermarket. 

Yet autonomous air delivery also demands the building of a new supporting infrastructure of drone landing pads and drop-off stations on or near homes and offices: a commercial opportunity, perhaps, but also an eyesore.

Coming through the kitchen window

It’s also not that convenient for the consumer. Unless you think an industrial-scale drone is going to fly through your kitchen window, you would have to go outside to the machine and open it – perhaps in the pouring rain – using a code sent to your phone or home hub. At this point we are starting to over-engineer solutions that are less convenient than a courier knocking on your door, especially if you live on the 10th floor of a block of flats.

It stands to reason that the player with the largest physical infrastructure, city by city, would win the drone-delivery wars. This may be why Amazon’s drone division has been haemorrhaging staff recently and Walmart is still pushing the idea. Or perhaps Amazon has simply realised that the idea is a non-starter.

In the UK, which accounts for 25% of total e-commerce in Europe, the drone numbers problem would be even worse were the model ever adopted. There are 3.5 billion packets under 2kg delivered in Britain every year. That's just one-third of the number transported in the US by Amazon, FedEx, and UPS alone, but over a landmass that is 40 times smaller. 

Clearly, there is a risk that the UK’s already crowded airspace would be choked with thousands of rotorcraft, which brings us to the next reason why last-mile drone delivery is an insane idea for our ageing, crowded cities. The public would never accept the noise nuisance and the dangerous, intrusive reality. 

Picture what it would actually be like: thousands of whining drones with exposed rotors flying over people's heads, past windows, and over gardens, schools, offices, and streets, morning, noon, and night – a new form of environmental pollution. No entrepreneur has tried to sell that vision. More accurately, no entrepreneur has even mentioned it, because it’s horrifying.

And all this disruption would be for what? To deliver non-essential consumer items, such as nail polish, shampoo, hair gel, yoga mats, smart speakers, and water bottles, which are among the most common Amazon purchases in 2021. Seen in that light, urban drone delivery begins to resemble a late-capitalist vanity project, an exemplar of a culture in crisis.

Bear in mind, these remotely piloted or autonomous platforms would also have to avoid hitting people, aircraft, birds, pets, buildings, power lines, masts, and traffic, and fly safely in all weathers, including wind and rain.

The first delivery drone to land on a rough sleeper, maim a child, kill an inquisitive dog, strike a helicopter, or cause a fatal accident would also kill the market overnight. From a business perspective – let alone an ethical one – that’s a massive downside risk.

And that’s not all: drones would also have to avoid colliding with each other, regardless of the vendor or technology platform in play. That would demand a level of tech, autonomous air safety, and policy standardisation that’s unlikely to be in place on day one – if ever.

Drone safety and avoidance technologies, from companies such as the UK’s D-RisQ and others, do exist but have yet to be widely adopted.

Fortunately, app-based, real-time, per-flight drone insurance is a fast-expanding industry, driven by start-ups such as Flock. But there’s an inbuilt problem with this concept too: premiums drop when drones move away from populous or higher-risk locations, and they increase over office blocks or railway stations.

That’s good news for the pilot or drone service provider, but it creates a financial incentive to route flights over parks, gardens, and residential areas to keep insurance costs down and profits up. The tranquillity of our green spaces would inevitably suffer. 

Drone deliveries may also trigger a rise in crime. Thefts of, or from, drones, attacks on devices, and protests from socially conscious activists seem inevitable. Why wouldn’t citizens rebel against the constant noise and intrusion into their lives? Why wouldn’t thieves or vandals see opportunity dropping from the sky?

Flight path 

Even these are not the only objections. Delivery drones are commercial aircraft, which means they must be safely integrated into our air traffic management systems. The challenge is being discussed in the UK by the Civil Aviation Authority and others, who accept that autonomous flight will become part of the aviation mix – and of course it will.

Unified air traffic management is technically feasible, but that doesn’t make urban drone deliveries a good idea, except for emergency applications in a disaster, or during any incident that might shut roads or leave citizens cut off from normal supply routes.

Drone deliveries to any isolated community are a good idea, though single-payload devices don’t seem to be the right solution for that problem.

But what about the pilots? One pilot per drone to deliver a single low-cost packet is economically unworkable. Far more likely is a single pilot overseeing a fleet of autonomous or semi-autonomous aerial vehicles, working long shifts for the lowest acceptable wage. Underpaid local air traffic controllers who are also expected to fly the planes? Zero risk to citizens there.

Drone pilots are already by far the biggest aviator community in the UK, with 260,000 registered users. Yet just 6,000 (roughly two percent) of those are qualified professional operators. This means that most – perhaps 98% of all drone pilots – know little about aviation rules, civilian airspace, or public safety. 

By comparison, statistical aggregator Statista estimates that there are just 330,000 qualified pilots of traditional aircraft in the entire world. The subtext is clear: soon there will be more drone pilots in the UK alone than there are trained airline pilots on the planet.

That figure is something we should all be concerned about, as it represents a vast, high-risk intrusion into the skies above our cities.

My take

It’s time to set aside the techno-evangelist hype and consider the reality of the drone delivery concept. Doing so reveals problems that are completely ignored at tech/policy conferences, for benefits that are – at best – highly questionable.

Drones are an exciting technology with countless sensible applications, but urban deliveries are just not one of them. Unless all the above objections can be answered credibly and in depth, the idea is utterly insane.

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