Drones For Home Delivery Closer To Reality, But Don’t Hold Your Breath

When 17-year-old Marty McFly travels in time from 1985 to 2015 in the blockbuster hit, Back to the Future 2  not only does his girlfriend magically turn into a completely different person, he gets a sneak peek at what the future holds for his 47-year-old self. The movie seems to accurately predict things like Google Glass, Apple Watches, and video teleconferencing.

Something it predicts with a little less accuracy is the use of drone technology or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles). In the movie, we see a USA Today drone hovering over Doc and Marty at the Hill Valley courthouse. While news organizations such as CNN are just starting to dabble in drone technology, drones are actually becoming more of reality in the world of home deliveries.

To be clear, the Federal Aviation Administration still forbids the use of drones for commercial use. But companies are allowed to ask for permission to experiment with drone technology. Some of the major players so far include Amazon, Google, and Walmart.

Walmart is the latest major company to ask U.S. regulators for permission to test drones for home delivery. Earlier this year, a company named Alphabet, which is actually Google’s parent company, said they want to begin delivering packages via drones to consumers by 2017.

In the meantime, Amazon is developing something called  Amazon Prime Air which they say will “safely get packages into consumers’ hands in 30 minutes or less.”

But what can we legitimately expect of the next couple of years in drone delivery? To put it simply, not much.

While the companies are starting the process of drone delivery, don’t expect the FAA to rush any permanent change in regulations. There are at least four significant factors preventing drone delivery from becoming the norm (at least anytime soon.)

  1. Safety concerns – The FAA is currently looking into proposal to allow commercial drone usage in low altitude and higher speeds, thus preventing a run-in with most aircraft. They’re also examining whether it would ever be safe to allow drone traffic near airports. That means that some individuals living even a couple of miles of  an airport might never be able to take advantage of the new technology.
  2. Limited Delivery Area –  Not only are neighborhoods near airports probably off the drone delivery map, some rural parts of the country would not qualify for drone service. It’s cost prohibitive and impractical. If a drone leaves a shipping warehouse in a large city for a rural address, chances are the drone’s battery would run out prior to landing.
  3. Higher Cost  Those examining whether to include drone service along with more traditional means of delivery must determine a cost structure. What will be the added expenses of maintaining a fleet of drones? Who will be tasked with repairing the drones should they break down? Is it cost-effective to invest in the infrastructure needed for drone service? All of these factors must be considered in setting a price for drone delivery.
  4. Lack of  Consumer Desire –  Do people really want to receive packages via drone? Is it worth the added cost, added air pollution, and added noise? While the thought of drone delivery is enticing in a Star Wars-kind-of-way, the reality could be ugly and annoying. Is it worth flooding our skies with buzzing drones just to get a pair of shoes a day early?

Last year alone, the FAA approved more than 2,000 exemptions for companies and individuals to test commercial drone usage. And while early indicators suggest some significant roadblocks toward across the board implementation, the questions and debate aren’t going away anytime soon.

Featured Image courtesy Reuters.