Receiving takeaways, groceries and coffee via unmanned devices is taking off, with start-ups helping the high street take advantage.
When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos first unveiled plans to deliver products by drone back in 2013, he conceded that he didn’t want anyone to think unmanned aerial vehicles merrily dropping off cardboard packages was “just around the corner”, adding that four to five years’ time was more realistic.
Eight years on and despite extensive secretive trials, Amazon’s drones have yet to fill the UK and Ireland’s skies. In the tech firm’s place numerous start-ups have begun dropping off customers’ shopping, delivering packages and medical kits and helping out on industrial sites.
Irish start-up Manna has been delivering orders by drone from Tesco, local coffee and bookshops, takeaways via Just Eat in the town of Oranmore in County Galway since October, and has proved so popular that 35 per cent of the 3,000 or so homes in its delivery area have tried it.
“We’ve had lots of orders for coffee,” Bobby Healy, Manna’s chief executive and founder tells i, pointing at a heat map of the previous week’s deliveries.
“Because we can make deliveries in 50 sq miles within three minutes of ordering, we’ve made it viable to get a coffee. Pretty much every vendor in town is working with us.”
The warm reception has given Manna the confidence to continue trials in a second Irish town of 40,000 people, where it’s anticipating making between 500 and 1,000 deliveries a day, over the next 18 months before expanding into the UK and Europe.
Drone delivery systems’ speed and efficiency can help the beleaguered high street to fight back following a dismal 18 months, Mr Healy points out, making competition with online retailers a feasible reality.
“Do you want to spend all your money on Amazon, or do you want to spend it on local vendors? It’s a pretty easy answer,” he says.
“We have a very valid and viable way for the local bookstore or hardware store to counteract the threat from Amazon – we can give them the tools to have viable businesses when they’re not going to have viable businesses otherwise.”
Like many arguments against automation, naysayers have cautioned that wider adoption of drone deliveries will put humans out of a job. Conversely, the most viable uses for drones involve deploying them for journeys that would typically be either treacherous or unnecessarily time-consuming for humans, says Alex Brown, head of operations at urban aviation operator Sky Ports.
Sky Ports started conducting drone trials carrying medical cargo for the NHS last year and began shuttling Covid-19 test kits and PPE between medical facilities in Argyll and Bute in Scotland from February.
“One of the medical practices we were working with had a 10am pick-up time, meaning if you came after that time to drop it off, it might be another 28 hours or so until it reached the pathology lab,” he explains. “We can change that to picking up every three hours or on demand, whatever works for the medical practice.”
Like Manna, Sky Ports doesn’t equip its drones with cameras, dispelling any notion of the fleets being used to conduct mass surveillance apart from in specific cases to scope routes at the beginning of a project, Mr Brown explains.
“That’s one of the most common questions we get from residents, and it’s one we try and hit on the head pretty quickly.
“A lot of people talk about drone delivery taking over the world and how every package is going to be delivered by one, and I just don’t agree with that.”
He adds: “Drone delivery’s very good when it’s targeted very specifically, and at the moment it works best in rural areas. That’s where the regulatory approvals can be obtained and where risk levels are lower, because supply chains in cities typically work pretty well.
“It’s in rural locations when you’ve got a car that has to wait three hours for the ferry to arrive, then has to drive along a narrow lane – that’s dangerous, and where it makes sense to use drones.”
The onus is on the drone operators to prove their systems are safe to fly in a variety of areas and aren’t violating people’s privacy or putting them in danger, explains John McKenna, chief executive of Sees.ai, the UK’s first company to be granted authorisation from the UK Civil Aviation Authority to trial flying drones beyond a human operator’s line of sight in April.
Sees.ai’s drones have been used to inspect the construction of the HS2 railway line, nuclear facilities, mobile phone cell towers and oil rigs in industrial environments, which reduces risk to the humans involved, he says.
“If you’re supporting workers on a construction site or oil and gas facility, those are extremely dangerous places for people to be. If you can avoid humans being there, you really are reducing the risk,” adds Mr McKenna.
‘It’s so handy when you are working from home’
Kieran Coughlan, who lives in Oranmore, has used Manna’s drones several times to order food to his home.“My first order was for a box of Quality Street, to try it out. The most recent was coffee and pastries last week. It arrives really quickly and keeps it fresh. It’s so handy when you’re working from home.
“You can sometimes hear the drones overhead during the day, but it’s a lot quieter than a car passing the house. I don’t find them loud, except for when they’re directly overhead.
“The price of delivery isn’t too bad – they had a €2 sale last week, but it’s normally around €5, I think. That’s in line with other food delivery charges, and the convenience makes it worth it. The only thing that’s stopped me using it even more was how popular it’s been – for a while it was hard to get a delivery slot.
“The dream, for me, is a scenario where if I realised I needed an onion while cooking, I could have one delivered in 10 minutes without leaving the house and facing a 30-minute round trip to the supermarket. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s close.”