In the film version of Ready Player One, director Steven Spielberg depicts a future that is dystopian, but not too dystopian. Yes, in the film’s version of 2045, Earth is essentially destroyed and people must live in trailer parks in the sky, but at least they can still get pizza delivered by drones. Delivery robots have been a dream since at least the days of George Jetson — and a number of well-funded companies are racing to make it happen — but the reality has, until now, been somewhat underwhelming, with drone-delivered food largely relegated to the world of marketing gimmicks and PR stunts, including a 7-Eleven coffee and Slurpee delivery in 2016.
If drone-based food delivery all feels a bit trivial, that’s probably because it is. In fact, one expert — Missy Cummings, the head of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab — has even said that she doubts that food delivery is important enough to warrant attention, predicting that it simply won’t “take off as a major business model.” But in many ways, the low stakes of food delivery make it an ideal way to test an emerging technology that could, for example, be used to deliver lifesaving medicine to rural areas — and if a few drone pizzas get dropped in the meantime, it’s probably a worthwhile trade-off.
In fact, there is already one place where tiny robots do air-drop dinner on a regular basis: Iceland. The small country launched the planet’s first drone-delivery service in summer 2017. The program is a joint venture between the country’s top online marketplace, AHA, and the Israeli tech firm Flytrex. Since launching, Flytrex’s drones have carried thousands of items (California rolls, hamburgers, waffle-makers) to people in the capital city of Reykjavik, and just two months ago the Icelandic Transport Authority expanded the approved delivery zone by a lot, meaning Skyr from the sky is now available to half of the city’s 123,000 residents.
Flytrex, as it turns out, has larger aspirations than Reykjavik. This past May, the Department of Transportation revealed a program called the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program that is “expected to foster a meaningful dialogue” between private-sector drone operators, the public, and the government in a way that will also help inform future regulations for “complex low-altitude operations.” As part of the program, ten companies were granted permission to begin flights in several areas around the country. Uber, for example, will begin a test program in San Diego, and is rumored to be eyeing “flights in 2019 and commercial operations in multiple markets by 2021.” Flytrex, meanwhile, will begin its own pilot program (of pilotless vehicles) in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Flytrex co-founder Amit Regev estimates that his firm will officially launch deliveries in Raleigh’s Holly Springs Towne Center strip mall in four to six weeks. Their model is set up like GrubHub or Caviar, with an app that employs GPS tracking and online menus. Customers order on the app, a worker retrieves the meal and loads it into a Flytrex drone, and it’s at the customer’s home in mere minutes. Customers will be able to order from any of the mall’s 20 restaurants, assuming they live within a three-mile radius. (Flytrex hasn’t decided on delivery fees yet.) Looking ahead, Regev says his company’s next-generation drone will also be able to fly in the rain, carry 30 percent more than a previous model, and fly 4.5 miles in each direction.
Flirtey is another company trying to figure out how food deliveries can translate into something more impactful. The Nevada start-up is the drone-makers responsible for that 2016 7-Eleven Slurpee delivery, and after that first run, Flirtey and 7-Eleven launched a monthlong pilot at Reno-area stores, completing 77 food and medicine drops in total; the average delivery time was ten minutes per order. Now, Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny is clear about his company’s eventual goal: “We intend to save lives using drone delivery,” he says of the company’s new focus on automated external defibrillators. “One Flirtey delivery drone,” Sweeny predicts, “will save at least one life every two weeks based on historical cardiac arrest data.”
Jeff Bezos and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, are playing in this space, too, yet — of course — plenty of problems need to be worked out, many of them almost laughably low-tech. How can drones combat kids with broomsticks or BB guns? Weight limits remain low due to the physical constraints of the actual drones. What happens if a low-flying drone’s rotor connects with a customer’s hand, or an overeager guard dog? Pizza boxes are surprisingly unwieldy and must remain perfectly flat. Drones are annoyingly loud. And deliveries can really only be made to yard-size areas, meaning pinpoint, doorstep delivery, or even deliveries to high-rise apartments, are basically impossible at this point.
Also, drones are still extremely easy to hack: In 2012, Todd Humphreys, an aerospace engineering professor who directs the University of Texas Radionavigation Laboratory, famously hijacked a drone in midair. Using a $1,000 device, he seized control of the four-foot aircraft. (The Department of Homeland Security had challenged him to try.) He warns that civilian drones remain just as easy to attack today, “and you can do it without much trace being left behind.” He gives Grub examples like using a GPS jammer so an aircraft gets lost. Hackers could commandeer a neighbor’s dinner without much difficulty. “Or you can imagine other ways that are more brute-force,” Humphreys adds. “A shotgun, for example.”
And yet, the executives of these companies are confident that they’ll figure these things out (as is the wont of tech executives) and that customer interest, not to mention the DOT’s, in this novelty will remain high enough that the firms will be given the room to try. Sweeny says that during Flirtey’s 7-Eleven trial, a group of customers threw a party and made Flirtey do “multiple consecutive deliveries of food” to the same address. “They told us they felt like ‘the real-life Jetsons,’” he says, sounding pleased to have made their night.