Delivery drone falls near children: the flying-deliveries dilemma

The episode may look trivial but comes at a key moment for the future of drone deliveries.

A delivery-drone, operated by Matternet on behalf of Swiss Post, fell near a group of children. The incident happened last May in Switzerland, reaching global attention only a few days ago. The drone, weighing 12 kg, fell from an unspecified height, probably between 60 and 100 meters. An almost certainly deadly impact for anyone in its trajectory. This is not the first accident: in January a failure was resolved with the opening of the emergency parachute, followed by a “soft landing”. In May the parachute ropes were cut, it is not known whether by the rotors or by other components, with a subsequent “hard landing”. Matternet and Swiss Post immediately suspended the test, awaiting verification.

The episode may look trivial but comes at a key moment for the future of drone deliveries. Wing (owned by Google) recently obtained the first commercial flight license granted by the American FAA. UPS applied a few days later. Amazon has introduced a new drone model. DHL is already delivering in China.

Everything was good when tests were held in sparsely populated areas, often in the Third World and for humanitarian purposes. This is how Matternet was born: it delivered urgent medicines to villages and hospitals that are difficult to reach by road, in Africa. Now the target is suburbia, with the clear objective of flying, sooner or later, over the only areas that would economically justify the launch of this technology: the most densely populated ones. Drones are expensive to produce and test but cheap to maintain, much more than a van and its pilot.

The obstacles to overcome, however, seem too many: not only the risk of falling but also the accessibility of the recipients, in-flight coordination between drones of different couriers, performance with adverse weather conditions and battery life, just to name a few. The most realistic scenario, in the long term, seems to be operating between Hub and Hub, along fixed corridors agreed with the authorities.

In light of these facts, a “victory” of land drones, those little robots on wheels that are all the more photogenic than their flying cousins, seems increasingly likely. Appearing late to the international stage, they passed their tests very quickly, first populating campus streets and then those of some complicit towns, all with a “Roman” layout and no obvious obstacles to traffic. For now, outside pedestrian areas, they run accompanied by technicians “in plain clothes” but it is reasonable to think that they could operate in the suburbs of most modern cities within a decade. Their autonomy over the disconnected labyrinths of our medieval cities remains very doubtful.

Las but not least, there are self-driving vehicles: drone-vans that should travel alone, loaded with packages, and replace the postman. They have even thought of one with a humanoid robot on board who has the task of bringing the package to the door.

While waiting for the last-mile robotic revolution, which will be fully enjoyed or suffered by our children (or grandchildren), it appears more urgent to invest in fleet electrification, route optimization, the drastic reduction of failed deliveries and in the satisfaction of customers, who have never asked for a drone but wish every day to not wait for their purchases in uncertainty. Objectives that are equally visionary but much less photogenic.

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