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Drones delivering diapers: what could possibly go wrong?

July 23, 2015, 4:41 PM UTC
A nine year old boy flies his drone in a local park.
Photograph by Skip Brown — Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

As children, we were told that storks fly around delivering tightly wrapped babies to the doorsteps of expecting parents— the ultimate package delivery system.

But much like this fantasy we tell our children, the idea that our modern-day storks – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – will be making deliveries right to our doorsteps shortly after we make our online purchases, is also a tall tale.

This week, organizers from a field hospital in rural southwest Virginia launched what was the first federally-approved small parcel drone delivery in the history of the United States. Prescriptions for 20 people were flown in a test flight by a NASA aircraft controlled by remote stations on the ground to an airstrip near the hospital, and a special delivery drone completed the final mile of the delivery.

But in this case, the effectiveness of drone technology is being tested to help solve a humanitarian crisis, not the shipping woes of regular package delivery.

Nevertheless, major companies, including Amazon (AMZN)

are proposing the use of drones to deliver the many products customers order from online stores, around the clock. The impetus: shipping is expensive. Very expensive. In fact, Amazon’s shipping costs amount to a multi-billion dollar burden on profits.

Anytime a buyer gets a “free” shipment, especially in a limited time frame, the supplier is likely eating that cost. Using a buzzing, innovative, high-flying machine like the drone could wipe away many of these shipping costs while cutting down on delivery time, thus drastically improving the customer experience and improving the bottom-line for the e-commerce industry.

Much like the difference between a stork delivery and the actual delivery room, however, the drone delivery fantasy and its actual implementation are worlds apart. If Amazon uses drone delivery, as it has proposed, other services like UPS (UPS), FedEx (FDX), and the U.S. Postal Service would likely join in. In no time at all, the friendly skies will have gotten a lot more crowded, and much less amiable.

Picture the firmaments swarming with a dangerous amount of drone traffic, raining debris on people below. And what about the risk of mechanical failure? A 50-pound flying machine carrying around a stack of diapers, a tube of toothpaste and a cellphone charger can cause a lot of damage.

It’s no wonder that in a YouGov/Huffington Post survey that asked 1,000 U.S. adults to describe their feelings about the use of drones to deliver goods, over half were opposed to the idea, and almost a third described the delivery plan as ‘scary,’ with fewer than 20% believing it would be ‘safe.’” One Colorado town went so far as to consider voting on offering licenses to shoot down unmanned aircraft that dare enter citizens’ private airspace.

This brings into sharp focus the litany of legal issues a nationwide drone delivery system would engender. Would one, for example, get compensation for the noise pollution caused by endless drones buzzing across one’s private property on the way to delivery? Who’s responsible for compensation if two drones collide, destroying their payloads?

These questions notwithstanding, the FAA has approved specific companies to test these flying delivery systems with allowances for heights of up to 400 feet, speeds up to 100 mph, and guidelines to fly solely above private property. Interestingly, these are similar to the guidelines already in existence for flying model aircrafts. But how will we know that these vehicles are safe enough to move from our backyards to a nation-wide supply system?

Despite these very serious issues, I wouldn’t shoot down the drone option entirely. In fact, I believe drones do have a significant role to play in the shipping and delivery industry. For example, there are huge application opportunities for this technology in warehouse settings. Drones can bring improvements to warehouse automation, and this will only increase as the technology improves.

And we can find countless other areas where drones offer genuine solutions, like in the example from Virginia, where drones are strategically valuable to a remote region affected by humanitarian crises. As Teresa Owens Gardner, Executive Director of the Health Wagon, and operator of three health-care clinics told the Washington Post, “I’ve got patients dying without medication. [Drones] could really be game-changing and increase access and save lives.”

But given the challenges and dangers, we shouldn’t be using drones as a fly-by-night answer that distracts from the inability to find real, sustainable solutions – solutions such as creating smart packaging that makes packing quicker and cuts down on waste, or creating a universal tracking system through which users can track shipments regardless of destination or carriers. The advances in cloud computing and data analytics are also beginning to streamline the delivery process, shortening delivery times, and reducing costs. It is these kinds of solutions that would make the whole shipping experience much more amenable.

But laying the future of our e-commerce industry in the bionic hands of our automated flying machines – that simply is not going to fly.

Jeremy Bodenhamer is the co-founder and CEO of ShipHawk, a logistics automation technology company that provides instant shipping solutions for businesses.