With massive corporations like Amazon, Wal-Mart, eBay, Domino’s, UPS, and Google staking huge sums of money on drone delivery, a future with drone delivery is a virtual inevitability. The challenges of drone delivery, however, make what that future is going to look like for both corporate and hobbyist drone users less certain. Those challenges can be broken down into three broad categories: natural, man-made, and technological limitations.
Something as basic as a thunderstorm presents a number of hypothetical logistical issues. How well would drones fare when buffeted by wind and sheets of water? Would an electrical storm interfere with the communication or guidance systems?
And if the drone, the drone motor, its electronics, and the package were all engineered to be weatherproof, how well would those deliveries stand up to consumer expectations? Would customers trust a delivery of electronics (or takeout) that would be flown through a gale?
Birds have long been the other primary natural concern. Avoiding bird collisions has been a priority for drone- and bird-lovers since mainstream drone piloting became a reality. According to the corporations developing the drone delivery tech, their bird sensors are very good, but there simply hasn’t been a widespread rollout yet. Will those bird sensors operate effectively among a group of drones, or in rain, snow, or fog?
Governments are understandably leery of fleets of drones zipping through their airspace. To avoid issues such as drones colliding with wildfire-fighting aircraft (which nearly happened above an East Idaho wildfire), regulations for urban, suburban, and rural airspace are still being established and likely will be for some time.
Big corporate players like Amazon are coordinating with government regulatory bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, and USPS to hammer out the sort of drone regulations that currently apply to commercial and private airliners. Whether or not the government and corporate regulation guidelines will agree remains to be seen.
Another facet of man-made challenges to drone delivery is the less pressing but still present threat of malicious attacks on drones, primarily by hackers and people shooting at the drones. (And not just with guns—Amazon has filed a patent for their anti-bow-and-arrow defense tech.) Mega-corporations generally have the budget to develop effective safeguards against threats like that, but if the technological age has taught us one thing, it’s that people are capable of great creativity when it comes to attacking different technological systems.
Like any other technological device, drones are limited by battery life, signal strength, and the possibility of mechanical failures. Drones aren’t just any other device though; in this instance they’re flying robots delivering packages. It’s an assignment that highlights and tests their limitations.
Unlike the traditional delivery truck, the delivery drones being unveiled appear to be limited to carrying packages of 5 pounds or less. Additionally, the average drone motor gives them a range of within 10 miles from the closest distribution hub. And it’s also unclear how viable delivery would be for those living in an apartment, condo, or even a house without an on-property clearing large enough to accommodate a drone landing.
So while the possibility of drones dropping something you ordered half an hour ago on your doorstep without using any gasoline is an appealing one, we don’t yet know when that eventuality will come to pass. Nor what the regulations governing corporate drone fleets will mean for the hobbyist.
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