Where Are the Delivery Drones?

Jeff Bezos said the Amazon drone would bring toothpaste and cat food to American homes in four or five years. That was almost nine years ago. Oops.

This week, Amazon said it plans to launch its first drone delivery in the US in 2022, perhaps, in a California city.

Today’s newsletter addresses two questions: Why is drone delivery taking so long? And are they better than other ways of bringing goods to our door?

Bottom line: For the foreseeable future, drone delivery will be easier at a limited number of locations for a small number of products under certain conditions. But due to technical and financial constraints, drones are unlikely to be the future of large-scale package delivery.

Drone delivery is a significant improvement for some functions, such as delivering medicine to people in remote areas. But that big drone dream is less ambitious than the one raised for Bezos and others.

Why are drones so difficult?

Mini-aircraft operating without human control face two significant hurdles: technology is complex, and governments need a lot of red tape – often for good reason. (In the US, regulatory issues have largely been worked out.)

Dan Pat, a veteran drone engineer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute Research Group, said he and I would be able to make our own delivery to the drone garage in less than $ 5,000 a week. The basics aren’t that hard.

But the real world is infinitely complex and drones cannot deal with it. At high speeds, drones must “look” and navigate precisely around buildings, electrical wires, trees, other aircraft, and people before sending a package down to the ground or down from a height. The GPS split can exit for seconds and crash the drone. There is little room for error.

“It’s really easy to solve the first part of the problem,” Pat said. “It’s really difficult to solve the whole problem to make drone delivery completely strong.”

The typical technologist’s approach is to think small, which means limiting drones to relatively obscure settings. The start-up Zipline focused on using drones to deliver blood and medical supplies to health care centers in parts of Rwanda and Ghana where driving was difficult. A typical suburb or city is more complex, and vehicle delivery is a better option. (A few thousand people live in overcrowded homes in Lockford, Calif., Where Amazon plans its first U.S. drone delivery.)

It’s still an incredible achievement, and over time drones are becoming more capable of delivering in other types of settings.

An even more difficult problem, Patt said, is that drone delivery is often not economical. It is cheaper to pack one more package on a UPS delivery truck. But drones can’t carry that much. They cannot make many stops in one flight. People and vehicles still need to carry cat food and toothpaste wherever the drone lands.

“I think it’s small markets, small concepts, specific uses for the next 10 years,” Pat said. “It’s not going to scale to change everything.” Some people who work on drones are more optimistic than Pat, but we’ve seen similar optimizations lack in other areas.

Extremely promising and underdeveloped

Similarities between drones and driverless cars kept popping up in front of me. Drone technologists told me that, like driverless cars, they misjudged the challenge and overestimated the potential of computer-piloted vehicles.

Reliable drone delivery and driverless cars are a good idea, but never as widespread as technologists have envisioned.

We keep making the same mistakes with automated technology. For decades, technologists have argued that computers, such as driverless cars, humans, and robotic factory workers, will soon become ubiquitous and better than ever before. We want to trust them. And when vision does not come out, despair comes.

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Brian X ChenConsumer technology columnist for The New York Times suggests ways to make our (drone-unsold) online shopping a little lighter on Earth.

  • Resist instant gratification. If you do not need an item immediately, it is best to choose the slowest shipping time. Delivery the same day or on the same day means that package companies prefer speed over efficiency – more plane flights and more miles being run which contributes to pollution.

  • Use less cardboard. There is an option called Amazon Day Delivery that lets people choose a specific day of the week and consolidate multiple orders in one drop-off. Items are also packed in small boxes. In addition, for some items Amazon offers “disappointment-free packaging” which eliminates some unnecessary packaging. Choosing any of these options will reduce your consumption of cardboard and plastic.

  • When used, buy used. For many Amazon listings, there is the option to purchase a used product. For many items ranging from cast-iron cookware to screwdrivers, it makes sense to buy something lightly used before retrieving it. You’re giving the product a second life, and saving yourself some money.

  • The former Google video maker sued the company, claiming he was fired after complaining about religious influence at work. Cad Metz and Die Wakabayashi expose the bizarre story of software, wine making and high consciousness.

  • Within the world of ransomware haggling: Bloomberg News describes the work of negotiators working with criminals who lock up organizations’ computer systems until they are paid. (Subscription may be required.)

  • Crypto workplace melts during crypto market meltdown. My colleagues Ryan Mack and David Yafe-Belani reported on the cryptocurrency company boss who told employees to leave if they disagreed with him on issues such as women’s intelligence and gender identity.

The birds are roaring. Here a Mockingbird mimics car alarms, police sirens and no sounds Cellphone

We want to hear from you. Let us know what you think about this newsletter and what else you would like us to explore. You can contact us ontech@nytimes.com.

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