Waiting patiently for a drone delivery

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, have been used in military operations for a long time. In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the first drone for civilian use, making them widely available to businesses of all sorts. And yet, almost two decades later, I am still waiting for a drone to deliver biryani to my house.

Why is it taking so long? Do I need to donate a drone to my local biryani restaurant?

Now you may be asking, “Why do you need biryani by drone? Why can’t you just use a delivery platform such as Uber Eats or DoorDash?”

These are good questions. All I can say is that various companies, as well as media outlets, have been teasing me with the whole concept of delivery by drone. “It’s coming soon,” they’ve been trumpeting, and I’ve been patiently waiting to experience it firsthand. I’m eager to see if a drone can bring food to me without flying into a wire and knocking out power for my entire neighborhood.

It has been more than eight years since Francesco’s Pizzeria made India’s first food delivery by drone in Mumbai, sending a pizza to a customer 1.5 km from the restaurant. The restaurant’s chief executive was confident that such deliveries would be routine in a few years. But if you call your local pizza shop, the closest thing to drone technology you will get is a recorded voice that drones on for several minutes.

Biryani by Kilo, a biryani and kebab chain in India, recently made several test deliveries by drone in the city of Hyderabad. I was excited to hear this, but unfortunately the company did not allow me to sign up for a test delivery. Apparently I live too far away. I thought the internet had shrunk the world.

Drones are being used successfully in a number of ways, including these three:

1. Aerial views. Drones provide overhead shots during outdoor events without requiring a helicopter or balloon. They allow movie directors to give you aerial views of every scene. If you are a prospective home buyer looking at real estate photos online, you will be able to get a good idea what birds think of your future home. Will they see it as a place to visit or a place to target from above?

2. Spraying pesticides. Farmers are using drones to apply pesticides to their crops. They’re also using drones to check the health of their crops, monitor field conditions, and awaken the farmhands from their naps.

3. Delivering medicine. During the pandemic, the Indian government used drones to deliver medicines and vaccines to rural areas. This initiative was called “Medicines from the Sky.”

Unfortunately, it’s going to be a long time before I experience an initiative called “Biryani from the Sky.” Getting any type of package delivered by drone is a long way away. As Thomas Black of Bloomberg.com noted in a recent column, the challenges of home delivery are both technical and strategic.

The technical challenge is mostly about safety. How do you get a drone to navigate all the hazards in a dense city and deliver a product to an individual home? The drone may deliver an item safely to your doorstep, but return to the sky carrying your overly curious toddler son. “Look Ma, I’m getting a ride to the Amazon store!”

Using a parachute to drop the package may be more feasible, as long as you don’t mind fishing your new iPhone out of your neighbor’s swimming pool.

Another major issue, still being worked out in the courts and legislatures, is how much airspace above private homes can be used freely by commercial drones. As far as I’m concerned, if a drone needs to pass through my airspace to deliver a McDonald’s meal to my neighbor, the least it can do is drop a few fries for me.

Strategic concerns pose a bigger hurdle, according to Black. While a delivery van can make a delivery to you and other consumers during the same trip, bringing down the cost of each delivery, drones can make only a single delivery at a time. This point-to-point delivery is quite inefficient. You’d be paying too much to get delivery by drone.

In an urgent situation, it might be worth it. If it’s 1 a.m. and you suddenly need something from the pharmacy, a drone would be useful. You could drive to the pharmacy and get it yourself, of course, but by the time you return, the moment may have passed.

Image courtesy of Photo by Don McCullough/Flickr 

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