Delivery drones: How next-gen mail-bots will deliver in record time


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s your online shopping! Imagine a world where your shopping was literally dropped o on your doorstep by a buzzing delivery drone. Well, companies such as Amazon, UPS and even Domino’s are working to make that idea a reality. Juggernauts in the delivery industry, Amazon and UPS are just some of the front-runners in the race to have the first ever commercial drone delivery service. So far, Amazon’s drones seem to be publicly leading the pack. Compact and light, the Prime Air drone has come a long way since its announcement back in 2013, achieving its first successful delivery to a customer in Cambridgeshire, UK, in late 2016. UPS, with its partner company Workhorse, aren’t far behind; in February of last year, the postal company saw the first successful test launch and delivery by one of their drones. Also entering the hi-tech air mail arena is Domino’s, who made a delicious delivery fi rst in New Zealand last year, dropping o two pizzas by drone. There is a wealth of companies such as DHL and Google who are also developing new drone delivery systems, so let the race begin. Unmanned aerial vehicles/systems (UAV/S), now commonly known as drones, have actually been around since the First World War. Born from the battlefield, the first UAV was the Kettering Bug, an aerial torpedo (the earlier version of a cruise missile) taking to the skies in 1918. Today’s commercial drones, however, are working hard to drop bargains rather than bombs.


The driving force behind these delivery innovations is to cut down on the delivery time of products. Prime Air and UPS both promise to have products with their customers within 30 minutes. In order to meet the short delivery times, these projects promise, how and where the drones take o is crucially important. Two methods have been explored so far. The first option, being explored by Prime Air, is to release the drones from dispatch centres located around the country. Due to travelling speeds and built-in battery time, Amazon’s drone has a range of around 16 kilometres. This means multiple dispatch bases would be needed for a nationwide fleet. UPS have taken a different route for taking off . Their iconic brown vans will act as the dispatch centre for their drones. Loaded from within the van, their drones will work with the road-bound vehicle’s navigation system to deliver parcels to more rural areas while a human postal worker is delivering by foot. The company have predicted that this human-drone partnership will save them an estimated $50 million (£37 million) a year. In a press release, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability Mark Wallace said, “This test is different than anything we’ve done with drones so far. It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery.”


Just like any aircraft, drones have to abide by the laws of physics and aerodynamics. The designs of delivery drones appear in all shapes and sizes. Some house an array of rotors on a compact body, while others only have two, more resemblant of a plane. The common factor, however, is the use of compact rotary blades. In a four-rotor drone such as the Prime Air, blades spin in time with their diagonal counterparts. The thrust generated by the blades’ rotation, along with stabilisation technology, maintains the drone’s position in the air. However, for delivery purposes, the extra load carried by the drone needs to be accounted for. The bigger the package, the more powerful the drone has to be in order to carry it. The proposed maximum weight of a package to be carried successfully by drone is 2.3 kilograms. That’s around the same weight as a couple of pairs of trainers with a little room to spare.


Once the delivery drone is in the air, current drone proposals describe these vehicles as autonomous (having the ability to not require a pilot), such as the Prime Air. In order for delivery drones to fly alone, they will rely on beyond visible line-of-sight technology. Guided by GPS systems, delivery drones will be able to travel directly to the customer’s location. While travelling, a prevailing concern among potential customers and development teams are the potential obstacles the drone may encounter. Whether it’s a bird, tree or even another drone, automatic sense and avoid (SAA) systems will be needed to prevent in-air and ground accidents. Built-in sensors and cameras will be able to identify a nearby object’s proximity and speed, enabling the drone to take a responsive action to avoid the obstacle. While each company working on this technology has their own version, the basics for the software appear to still be very much under development.


Though the delivery drone industry is alive with new technological advances, we are a long way from seeing fleets of post-bots zipping through the air. Factors such as flight legislation and sense and avoid technology appear to be just some of the obstacles that need to be overcome. But if these logistical hurdles are surmountable, delivery drones will revolutionise the freight industry In 2019, NASA intends to submit recommendations for airspace use, offering a potential pathway for commercial drone activity. UPS, DHL and Amazon are continuing to develop new systems and strategies in order to perfect their drones. Amazon has even patented a beehive-style dispatch centre to house fleets of delivery drones within cities. Over the coming years, test runs and pilot programmes will shape the future generation of drones. It is estimated that by 2021 we might see the beginnings of complex drone delivery systems in action. With some attempting Christmas delivery trials this year, it might not be long before we hear the hum of drones alongside the jingling of Santa’s sleigh.


The companies developing a drone-led delivery service


Working with vehicle development company Workhorse, the ‘Horsefly’ is designed to take flight from a UPS delivery van.

Amazon Prime Air

While still in the development stage, the Amazon Prime Air conducted its first successful trial delivery in December 2016.


Developed by drone delivery company Flirtey, the DRU Drone was the world’s first pizza delivery drone, delivering to a customer in New Zealand.


Project Wing, developed by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, hope to have an entire fleet of these drones in a few years.


Remote access

Not every medical centre in the world has access to roads all year round. Companies such as Matternet have developed drone technology and piloting software called ‘Cloud’ to deliver medical supplies to remote areas.

People carrier

Rather than delivering products or supplies, the Passenger Drone delivers people. Completely autonomous, this two-seated drone is set to allow people to fly to their destination, airspace safety permitting. 16 individual rotors propel the drone into the air, which can then fly for between 20–25 minutes.

Emergency treatment

When someone is experiencing a cardiac arrest, time is of the essence. Rather than dropping off supplies, the TU Delft ambulance drone becomes the medical delivery. With a built-in defibrillator, this drone project aims to cut down response times to cardiac emergencies.

Medical drop off

In Rwanda, blood delivery to hospitals often takes hours, but now with the help of the Zipline drone, blood and other medical supplies can be delivered in around 30 minutes. Launched in 2016, this life-saving drone delivers to 21 transfusing facilities.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 107

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