In 2013, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon was developing a drone delivery service. He estimated at the time that the air-dropped packages were “four, five years” away. Nearly a decade later, service is expected to begin later this year, albeit at just two locations across the United States.
According to David Carbon, an Australian expat and vice president of the company’s drone delivery division, Amazon wants to deliver 500 million packages a year by drone starting in 2030. Carbon told AAP earlier this month that the The company was planning a larger rollout for air deliveries in the United States and potentially Australia.
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Despite years of hype and well-publicized evidence, drone deliveries are far from ubiquitous. In Australia, only two companies have been approved by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA): Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, which delivers food, drink and other consumer goods; and Swoop Aero, which focuses on medical equipment and supplies.
Swoop this week received $1.8 million in federal funding to expand its operations, which include transporting medical samples from hard-to-reach locations to pathology labs, thereby shortening testing times.
For Wing, which holds a monopoly on the consumer market, the business is booming. “Earlier this year, we completed 1,000 deliveries in one day,” says Wing Australia General Manager Simon Rossi. The company operates out of two Canberra sites in Logan, near Brisbane, and has just launched a fourth location in the Gold Coast suburb of Ormeau, in a ‘store-to-door’ partnership with Coles announced last month.
Rossi says the company made more than 120,000 deliveries in the first nine months of this year, the majority of them to Logan, up from 100,000 in 2021.
But despite the surge in demand, the question of whether drone delivery will take off as a mainstream service across Australia remains outstanding.
“Nowhere near as loud as a leaf blower”
Sarah Coad, a resident of the Logan suburb of Crestmead, has used Wing’s delivery service several times. Some blocks of ice she ordered “were still frozen when we received them,” she recalls. “[The drone] it hovers over the landing site, then slowly retracts the food to the ground, drops it off itself, and then flies off,” he says. “It’s very, very beautiful to look at.”
“Tells you how far it is… you choose what your landing area is.”
Coad also owns Blackout Coffee and Catering, which was formerly a seller of Wing. He says the partnership, which lasted about 18 months, has yielded a fair amount of business.
Here’s how deliveries work: A customer who lives within a 7km radius of one of Wing’s drone sites places an order through the Wing app or, starting this month, through DoorDash. A 5 kg drone, completely autonomous but monitored by a pilot, takes off from its home “nest” and flies to collect the package – let’s say a coffee or some eggs – which can weigh up to 1 kg.
With a wingspan of 1.3 meters, the drone travels up to 110 km/h and can handle rain but not too much wind. When flying to a destination, its height is between 40 and 60 meters, Rossi says, but when you lower a package to the ground, it drops to seven meters and never lands.
Jonathan Roberts, a professor of robotics at the Queensland University of Technology, says it’s no coincidence that Wing operates in low-density suburban locations. “If you were right in the middle of a very built-up area and these things had to fly over a lot of people, it’s just common sense that you might annoy more people,” he says.
Drone noise has been a controversial issue. In 2019, following community backlash to a Wing trial in the suburb of Bonython, an ACT Legislative Assembly report found that noise is “the biggest barrier to community acceptance of delivery services through drones”.
The report added, “Wing recognized that noise was the main source of negative feedback during the process and modified its drone.” The most recent model of him, says the company, has halved the perceivable sound level.
Now, says Roberts, “in decibels they’re nowhere near as loud as a leaf blower or lawn mower,” but the latter sounds are more widely accepted.
He can’t imagine a practical way to deploy delivery drones in more densely populated urban areas. “I think the security case in a dense CBD is less likely to be accepted, just because of the foot traffic… and the practicalities of where you deliver a parcel to, say, an apartment block.”
Rossi says his company’s drones trump other means of delivery on the sustainability front. “Do you need a car that weighs 1,300kg to deliver a hamburger or coffee, when you could do it with a drone that uses much less energy and also has no greenhouse gases due to the electric batteries it uses?”
But Roberts suggests that the comparison depends on the delivery vehicle, and that the environmental benefits of drones will diminish as wheeled vehicles become increasingly electrified.
“If you compared [the environmental impacts of a drone] with a diesel van then yes it probably holds up, because they are all electric and in theory the electricity could come from renewable sources. But if you compare them to electric delivery vans, which also get their energy from renewable sources, then no, they don’t stack,” Roberts says.
Other experts have pointed to the potential environmental costs of drone delivery, such as increased packaging and risks to birds.
“Keeping cars and trucks off the road could reduce energy consumption, but lithium mining for batteries and power supply for data centers could reduce or eliminate those gains,” three academics wrote in last year’s Conversation. .
Researchers at the University of Western Australia last week described commercial delivery drones as “an environmental and public health catastrophe waiting to happen”.
There have been occasional drone incidents. Footage of a bird swooping down on a Wing drone in Canberra surfaced last year. In September, a delivery drone landed on power lines in Browns Plains, temporarily cutting power to thousands of residents. The drone “came on fire and was incinerated,” an Energex spokesperson told the Brisbane Times.
Roberts, who described Casa as having “strict regulations,” says he’s not concerned about the safety of commercial drones.
“In world terms they are seen as a reasonable air regulator,” he says. “Australia was one of the first countries to have specific regulations on drones. Casa regulated this very early on, which is why many companies have been testing things for years [here].
“I’m very confident that this stuff is safe — it’s everything else that’s, I think, in the air: whether it makes economic sense, whether it makes environmental sense, whether it’s annoying to other people who aren’t getting the delivery.”
Drone deliveries, according to him, “will probably be there in the background…it probably won’t be a mainstream thing.”