back to article Delivery drones: Where are they when we really need them?

More than a billion people are in coronavirus-inspired lockdown and even going out to shop for essentials risks infection. So why aren't delivery drones swooping in with our shopping, to let us practice social distancing while also enjoying a life of louche, on-demand luxury? We've been promised they're coming. Amazon …

  1. Blofeld's Cat

    Er ...

    I suspect that a lot of drones would set off on their deliveries and either fail to arrive or arrive minus their payload.

    My coat? It's the one draped over the throwing net and 128 rolls of toilet paper.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Er ...

      Perhaps the drone is more valuable than its payload?

      I'm sure that there will be drone chop shops springing up all over the place should these become common and always assuming that the UK laws will get changed which is unlikely any time soon.

      1. AMBxx Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: Er ...

        By the time the law changes, the laws of physics will implode and we'll have teleportation doing away with the need for anything as crude as a drone.

    2. sad_loser

      Re: Er ...

      And in related news, catapult sales have taken off (pun intended)

      The tidy beards and man-buns who dream up this shit need to understand their customer and test things in areas stuffed with scallies and flat-roofed pubs. Then they'll know if the technology works or not.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Er ...

      yeah I wonder what would happen if a 5lb box of 'stuff' were to fall 200 feet onto a car... sorta like a boss's nephew or unwanted consultant falling out of a 3rd floor window?

      (a new definition for "air mail")

  2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "Futurist predict"

    It's all well and good to use science-fiction as a basis for prediction, but the question is how can drones be useful now ? Apparently, the answer is : they can't.

    We're not going to redesign our cities to fit drones. Telephone poles are here to stay for a while yet, because small towns do not have the money to bury all wires and get rid of them in one go. It'll take a long before everything gets buried, and that will only happen when burying wires is as cheap as setting up poles.

    And cars going up building walls ? Please. Sci-fi is nice, but the energy cost of dragging a car up a wall is insane next to a person in an elevator. Even when we get fusion working and energy becomes "free", there will still be no reason to go and drag tons of mass to elevated places just because we can. The danger of having them drop back down in an uncontrolled manner is just too great.

    1. vtcodger Silver badge

      Re: "Futurist predict"

      "because small towns do not have the money to bury all wires and get rid of them in one go"

      I live in an area with buried utilities. They are great aesthetically. And they are more reliable than overhead wires. But the do fail at times. And when they do, repairs are costly. And slow. And are prone to leave trenches in the roads and yards. My thought would be. By all means tidy up your overhead wiring if it needs it and you can afford it. But think long and hard about whether underground is really appropriate for your situation before you start digging.

      1. vtcodger Silver badge

        Re: "Futurist predict"

        Now that I think about it, why not beef up the overhead utility conduit and using it as a track for delivery "drones". Sort of a 19th century solution. But it might be quieter, safer, less bandwidth intensive, etc than airborne delivery vehicles. Downsides? I doubt the pigeons will like it.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: "Futurist predict"

          Yes! What YOUR town needs is...a MINI-MONORAIL. Even Shelbyville has one!

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: "Futurist predict"

        "I live in an area with buried utilities."

        All the utilities may be buried but I'd guess any street lights are still overhead.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: "Futurist predict"

          I'm pretty certain a portion of most trees still grows upwards, too. From what I understand, some are even taller than street lights. Worse, they tend to be randomly distributed, unlike street lights. (Except in England, where even their so-called "forests" queue up ... its the British Way).

      3. Persona Silver badge

        Re: "Futurist predict"

        I live in an area with buried utilities too. My FTTP optical fibre runs in a conduit under the road, then up a telegraph pole across the road and my front garden, then down the wall of my house. It made the install very easy which is probably part of the reason why we have FTTP in our street.

      4. rcxb Silver badge

        Re: "Futurist predict"

        Direct burial is an unfortunate half-step that ends up costing more money in the log-run. Taking the next step to utility tunnels resolves all those issues, and offers many more advantages.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: "Futurist predict"

          True. One wouldn't want a buried log flume ... the inevitable jams would be dangerous to clear.

          Joking aside, one big problem with tunnels is a little thing called ground water. It's true that pumping works, and is relatively inexpensive ... but poles have a longer life than pumps, require little to no maintenance, and are cheap and easy to replace. That's why they are used. The fact that both initial cost of ownership and ease of getting an easement are so much lower is just gravy.

          1. rcxb Silver badge

            Re: "Futurist predict"

            poles have a longer life than pumps, require little to no maintenance, and are cheap and easy to replace

            There are plenty of areas where poles do NOT have a long life... some areas are dense with trees have frequent ice storms that bring down utilities lines and poles, etc. They're quite difficult to replace after such storms as well, due to dangerous icy driving conditions, many roads blocked by snow, downed trees, etc.

    2. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: "Futurist predict"

      And cars going up building walls ? Please. Sci-fi is nice, but the energy cost of dragging a car up a wall is insane next to a person in an elevator. Even when we get fusion working and energy becomes "free", there will still be no reason to go and drag tons of mass to elevated places just because we can

      The way I see it , there's little justification for the current trend dragging 2 tons of mass around per person horizontally .

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: "Futurist predict"

        That's why I don't drive a 4,000 pound car unless I need it ... and then it's usually my 9,000 pound F-350.

        What, you expect me to tow a four horse slant with a so-called "smart car"? Those little pieces of shit can't even handle half a dozen bags of critter chow ...

      2. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Re: The way I see it

        That's nice for you. But guess what? Your transport needs (convenience, safety, comfort, environmentalism, weather resistance, load capacity, etc.) aren't the same as others'.

        1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

          Re: The way I see it

          I enjoy my pickup as much as the next guy . it just aint sustainable. Cant run those things on solar once the oil runs out.

          Also , theres a time and a place. Towing horses fine , using the same 9000 pound F350 to make the tem mile trip to the office to do work you could have Logged in from home to do ...(yep thats the new thing) ... not very green.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: The way I see it

            That last point is where once this pandemic is over might be the biggest change. Suddenly a LOT of people are trying out working from home. More might find it works better for them and the employers, assuming they find they can keep productivity, will find they need much less office space and finally realise they really don't need to actually have meetings in person.

            Lots of those first time WFH people are working from laptops. If the employers realise this could be a thing, home based workers might get better kit to use at home and just stay there with a dock added to the laptop and descent sized screen.

            What might come back and bite some of them is possible business rates on a portion of your home.

          2. jake Silver badge

            Re: The way I see it

            My 1915 Case runs on coal ... or old fence posts. Sadly, making an 800 mile round-trip in the old gal would probably involve a complete engine rebuild and about 6 months. I think I'll stick to the dually ... However, my next small tow rig will run on ethanol. I can produce as much of that as I like. The Peterbilt will continue to run on diesel and/or used cooking oil into the foreseeable future.

            My office is up the spiral staircase from my bedroom. Has been for a couple decades now. People who commute need to find a better use of their time. Life is entirely too short.

    3. macjules

      Re: "Futurist predict"

      My street in West London has overhead wires for BT lines. Luckily they were discontinued over 20 years ago but BT just can not be bothered to remove them. Every year we make yet another complaint and every year we get an earnest response about removal of the lines.

      I suspect they are waiting for the overhead lines to become a listed national heritage item.

      1. Mike 16

        Telcom overhead

        My brother in law gave up his landline a decade ago. Removal of the wire itself was handled by a slightly too tall box truck a few years later.

        Drones capable of carrying a week's groceries should be up to the wire-clearance job.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Telcom overhead

          >Drones capable of carrying a week's groceries should be up to the wire-clearance job.

          Drone + large underslung circular saw

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: Telcom overhead

            Circular saws and wire don't get along. At all.

            1. BebopWeBop

              Re: Telcom overhead

              Just nuke them from space. You know it makes sense.

    4. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: "Futurist predict"

      "small towns do not have the money to bury all wires and get rid of them in one go"

      San Diego has had a budget for "undergrounding" the wires since the 90's. In fact, back when the 'Tank Guy' went on a rampage with a stolen tank, knocking over power poles and running over cars and fire hydrants, I called into a radio station and mentioned that if the power poles had been 'undergrounded' in front of the National Guard Depot he stole the tank from (I lived very close to there at the time) then my power would not have gone out for several hours. Needless to say (I suppose but I'll say it anyway) the wires STILL have not been "undergrounded", because, politics. Problems with my phone line (on a telphone pole, naturally) over the last decade just underscore that fact even more.

      The problem: gummint and political correctness. The city (or a lawsuit, or SOMETHING) apparently "requires" that a POOR NEIGHBORHOOD be 'undergrounded' for every alleged RICH NEIGHBORHOOD. This means that utilities can't just coordinate doing large chunks of the city efficiently. Oh, NO, you have to work in WHO lives there and political correctness... and so NOTHING! GETS! DONE!!!

      That means wires wires wires and drones beware.

  3. jake Silver badge

    Not rubbish at all!

    I hear on good authority that they are a wonderful source of spare parts.

    1. Khaptain Silver badge

      Re: Not rubbish at all!

      And I have seen the YT video that helps ensure the spare part collection

      1. BebopWeBop

        Re: Not rubbish at all!

        And $20 for three shells - that might improve peoples accuracy.

  4. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    I note that the AAIB have started noting UAV incidents

    e.g. page 47, with a further 7 incidents 'noted' on subsequent pages.

    Good to see that at least licenced UAV pilots are behaving properly and reporting such incidents, though.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "There are also trends towards reduction of poles"

    "Wireless communication". Please, tell me where are we going to place all those 5G antennas... buildings facades are not always the best place, especially when they are not tall enough, don't have good line-of-sight to destinations, and behind trees... oh, should we got rid of local trees too, and then complain Amazon forests have not enough to counter carbon dioxide production?

    Should we remove street lights too? Well, maybe we would see the stars again!

    BTW: power and fibre lines can be deployed underground - and in many places they are - even if it's more expensive.

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: "There are also trends towards reduction of poles"

      Some suggestions that every streetlight will contain a nano cell and a CCTV camera.

      Not to mention a car charger when we get some bigger cables in.

    2. Annihilator

      Re: "There are also trends towards reduction of poles"

      I had heard recently that BT aren't going to make telegraph poles any longer.

      Apparently they're long enough already.

    3. Claverhouse Silver badge

      Re: "There are also trends towards reduction of poles"

      Germany already puts a majority of power lines underground.

      To a chorus of voices from providers in Britain and America saying. "You can't do that there here."



      Still, just read in a book about London underground, that..

      The most noticeable difference between a street-scene, of say, 1897 and today [ 1960 ] as far as London or any other big city is concerned, is the freedom of the modern sky-line from the criss-cross of telegraph and telephone cables and power-lines which ( with the pigeons and starlings on them ) darkened the murky sky of the late nineteenth and early 20th century to an even grislier gloom --- 'within the lowest hell, a lower hell'.

      Michael Harrison [ the Sherlock Holmes enthusiast ] : London Beneath The Pavement. 1961


      Mind you, not a lot difference for clerks in the 19th century, who as I read elsewhere, arrived in the City in darkness and left the city in darkness. Mostly standing at tall desks for 11 hours a day...


      Also, if you've ever wondered why we don't bury suicides at crossroads any more, it annoyed George IV, who forced an Act through parliament.


      Finally, The Register should do a retrospective on Colonel R. E. B. Crompton. RE. Most impressive man...

      1. BebopWeBop
        Thumb Up

        Re: "There are also trends towards reduction of poles"

        Now that really was wide ranging post!

  6. Steve Button Silver badge

    Not gonna happen.

    At least not in the next few decades. Perhaps when someone discovers the anti-graviton

    There are just too many problems. Battery life being the main one, but also noise, obstacles, safety, privacy. Those are all pretty big problems, not easily fixed.

    Of course if you keep predicting the future, then some of it will come true eventually. Just in this case, not in any useful timescale for most of us.

    Self driving cars are much more likely.

    1. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: Not gonna happen.

      They're like flying cars -- its sort of feasible to make a couple of prototypes but when it comes to mass certification for commerical use the design will hit a brick wall.

      Most people don't realize the amount of bureaucracy that goes into any commercial aircraft. Every part has to be certified and every part used either to make it or to replace a failed part has to have a paper trail identifying who made it and tying it to its original ceritifcation. This might seem like unnecessary burarucracy but its what keeps us relatively safe, both in the air and on the ground.

      In the US at least the prototypes will have a large 'EXPERIMENTAL' notice somewhere about them and they will be restricted as to when and how they can fly and they will definitely not be able to generate revenue.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not gonna happen.

      The simple reason is battery life does not make this a viable/profitable option.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Not gonna happen.

      "Perhaps when someone discovers the anti-graviton"

      I actually figured out (through various maths) how to create gravity waves, essentially by spinning a heavy gas within a super-strong magnetic field at a high rate of rotational speed (approaching relativistic velocities). To be useful, it would probably require a prohibitively large amount of power, an impossibly strong magnetic field, etc.. But it would look an awful lot like the magnetron in your microwave oven. That being said, if the drone were the size of a 'big rig' [and consumed even more fuel] then MAYBE it could be done...

      Maybe anti-grav could be "the next thing" after fusion power plants have been successfully operating for >100 years...

  7. Dave Pickles

    Drones with wheels are a thing...

    in Milton Keynes.

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Drones with wheels are a thing...

      You would think that those little robots that trundle around MK delivering stuff would regular targets for vandalism and robbery. But for some reason they are left alone for people to point at and take photographs. Quite successful so far and their coverage is being expanded.

      1. IGotOut Silver badge

        Re: Drones with wheels are a thing...

        Plus they save on Taxi / Uber costs.

  8. Captain Hogwash

    Delivery drones of the future...

    will be blimps.

    1. Fred Dibnah

      Re: Delivery drones of the future...

      A great idea, and a better alternative than having the noise of angry wasps all around.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Delivery drones of the future...

        Except When The Wind Blows.

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Delivery drones of the future...

      For a 'delivery blimp' you need a LOT of volume in the gas bag if you use helium. But, GOOD NEWS! A _hydrogen_ blimp takes only half as much volume in the gas bag as Helium. Nevemind that whole Hindenberg thing... that's just "old news" [heh]

  9. vtcodger Silver badge

    It'll happen

    Mt GUESS is that 50 years from now, automated delivery will be ubiquitous. And some of it at least -- the light and/or urgent stuff -- will be by air. But the problems are legion and will take a LONG time to solve. And unlike autonomous cars -- which some people covet strongly and a smaller number of folks actually need -- there's no particular urgency.

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: It'll happen

      yeah but if we had autonomous vans we could do *real* delivery , not just things smaller and lighter than a packet of fags.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: It'll happen

        And who is going to carry the *real* delivery into my house once the autonomous van gets there? Traditionally, it has been the driver & his mate ... are you seriously suggesting that two blokes get paid to do absolutely nothing while extremely expensive and unreliable electronics navigates to the delivery site? And of course, after they spring into action to do their bit, the dudes hang out in the van and get paid to do absolutely nothing while the van returns to pick up another delivery? (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

        Shirley it makes more sense to eschew the electronics and pay a driver to drive?

        1. BebopWeBop

          Re: It'll happen

          True, the drivers are (generally) multifunctional wonders.

        2. vtcodger Silver badge

          Re: It'll happen

          I imagine that you'll have one or more delivery ports -- think in terms of a mailbox on steroids -- on your house or business. The delivery vehicle will robotically just slip your delivery into the port. I'm very old and I can remember that back in the 1940s in the US they actually did that (manually not robotically) with milk, bakery products and ice. I think they did it with coal in colder climates and they still do it (again manually, but it could probably be automated) with fuel oil or propane in cold areas beyond the reach of natural gas.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: It'll happen

            1940s? It was still normal in Palo Alto into the 1960s ... Piers Dairy on Louis Road (established 1906ish) did home delivery into the 1970s ... Now it's long gone, the property sub-divided into yuppie bungalow McMansions on postage stamp sized lots and a neighborhood park. (If you care, look for Piers Court ... at least the developer had the decency to keep the memory of the family name.)

            But that was a completely different world. One where the milkman was a professional who was allowed into the house to place items into the fridge when you weren't home. A world where you could leave the side door unlocked so he could get in. That kind of thing would never happen today, alas.

            You are right about fuel oil and propane. But intentionally building infrastructure for home delivery of groceries by drone? Somehow I doubt it. For one thing, who is going to set the standard? How do I know that company will still be delivering next year? Why would I bet on building infrastructure into my home on what is probably quite literally a fly-by-night company?

        3. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

          Re: It'll happen

          " are you seriously suggesting that two blokes get paid to do absolutely nothing"

          no no no , we'd have to ditch those guys!

          Either the deliveree comes to the van , picks up box from vending machine like hatch , using ID,

          Or people who want this build themselves roadside , or driveway-side delivery boxes the van can vend into securely. I'm thinking of building this anyway , as I'm never in when things arrive, well , that might change now ...

  10. Buzzword

    Vertical cars?!

    cars of the future will include vehicles that travel up and down the outsides of such buildings

    What are these futurologists smoking?

    1. Mike 137 Silver badge

      Re: Vertical cars?!

      No dope needed - they've just been watching the Star Wars prequels. Just as Minority Report spawned the gesture controlled interface, some smartass will one day try for this "because it worked in the movie".

      1. Danny Boyd

        Re: Vertical cars?!

        The cars running up the building walls also come from "Minority Report".

  11. Mike 125

    Must get the order right...

    Here's the problem: any camera drone that lands in my back garden sure as hell isn't leaving in one piece:

    1) Underpants back on.

    2) Balaclava up.

    3) Test drone resistance to baseball bat.

    And if Amazon complain? It's my word against theirs - see them in court.

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: Must get the order right...

      Its not gonna be compulsory!

      You could probably just pay the extra and get a postman you could bite.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Must get the order right...

        But the postman doesn't go into my backyard.

        Nor can he see into it.

  12. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    The despatch points for most carriers seem to be at least 20 miles from where I live, the exception being Royal Mail at 2 miles.

    The despatch depot can fill an entire van with parcels and set it trundling round the route - one round trip delivers many parcels. If the current drone problem is getting the payload up to one decent-sized parcel it sounds as if they haven't got near their real problem - a drone with the carrying capacity of a van to replace the multiple 40 mile return journeys per parcel.

    Then, when we've got drones that size we have a whole new problem...

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Tru dat.

      The only possible use i can see for drone delivery is to bring me a pint from the bar.

      Small load. short trip.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Finally - a good use case. And as it can only carry one you don't even have to fork out for a round.

      2. ChrisElvidge

        Last scene in Midsomer Murders' Death By Persuasion?

      3. BebopWeBop

        Small load

        Speak for yourself.

  13. IGotOut Silver badge

    We don't need drones!

    We now have Bitcoin...oops sorry AI.

    Fixes everything.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: We don't need drones!

      Nah! It's easier and cheaper to string blockchain between the telegraph poles.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: We don't need drones!

        And with the obvious safety and security of blockchain, they could double as Aerial Tramways for public transportation.

  14. macjules

    XAG Drones?

    Already being used for disinfectant spraying in China. From the look of them one of those drones can carry some heavy goods so why not use XAG?

  15. This post has been deleted by its author

  16. Claverhouse Silver badge

    Fortean Times Alert

    The payload on Wing's 2019 experiment in the Australian city of Canberra was a mere 1.5kg, barely enough to cover a small bottle of milk and a loaf of bread.


    Strange occurrence of 1000s of bottles of milk falling from the skies.

  17. ElectricPics

    The only people who think delivery drones are any good are the corporate communications departments at Amazon etc who find them useful for getting some incremental media exposure.

  18. rcxb Silver badge

    Drones are successfully delivering blood to hospitals across Rwanda:

    1. jake Silver badge

      Niche case in a small country. A very good use of technology, IMO.

      But will it scale? How far?

      (Hopefully the usual likely lads won't discover a new way of minting money by bringing them down and selling the parts on fleabay ... There must be over a man-year's worth of local income in each of those things, which probably makes 'em a tempting target ... ).

  19. Denarius


    Most planes are fixed wing for a reason. Efficiency. Helicopters use 10 times more fuel than a fixed wing for same distance and are slower for same energy. Whether rotary wing, prop or jet, vertical flight is demanding and mechanically complex. So just as helicopters have a role but not general use, I expect delivery drones will also. As in the Rwanda case. I know of a spot weed spraying business where the drone carries a weed recognition system and only sprays where needed. Drone is very expensive, but cost effective compared to helicopter or mass spraying. As for delivering routine pizza or groceries, until a silent propulsion system with immense and energy dense storage is developed, drones as cargo carriers are still a local annoyance outside of specialist rural cases. Fun to round up sheep with though

    1. BebopWeBop

      Re: physics

      Not to mention the expense (both procurement and more regular maintenance than a fixed-wing aircraft). Although I do have a bad habit called a "gyrocopter". Actually simple and easy to maintain, but the required regular certification and third party check are orrible. In part, because the only people able to do it are 70 miles away.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another huge problem with drone delivery--right of way

    If these drones are going to be noisy, and they will presumably get noisier as they reach the size and power to actually deliver 40 or 50 pounds of groceries or other material, what is going to be the impact of them crossing over other properties at low altitude, on the way to the final customer? There will be noise pollution issues, privacy issues, issues with them crashing into trees, cords and power-phone lines, fences, rooftops, or just having a power failure on approach or departure, etc.

    I REFUSE to be billed by Amazon or whomever because their drone hit my clothesline, tree, utility house drop, etc. If the drone is not too heavy, I am fine with placing it out on the sidewalk for the merchant to come recover, but I assume no liability if the drone is stolen by someone else while it is placed there. And I absolutely do not give consent for these merchants making deliveries to have their personnel come onto my property to recover their drone without my permission and the presence of an adult from my household. Nor do I want that presence to involve a time window where "We'll be there between 10 AM and 2 PM, please wait at home for us to arrive and recover our property."

  21. Andy1

    Drone delivery services seem so vulnerable to malfeasance. Could it ever make commercial sense given the probable attrition rate. Even if they don't actually have to land but lower the payload on a string how easy would it be to catch one before it departs. How many deliveries would a drone have to make before it pays back the its cost.

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