Drones are the future. Flying robots will tend our fields, fight fires, and definitely deliver your junk from Amazon. Most importantly, they will bring pizza — fast. Your phone will ding and there, at the door, will be food. No fumbling for cash tips; in fact, there will be none of that pesky human interaction at all. That’s the dream, that’s the vision. So, where is the pizza-copter, and why isn’t it here already?
There have been stunts a-plenty: engineers making burrito bombers , spurious talk of taco copters in the Bay Area, a lumbering Crushinator-like robot delivering pizza in Australia. Even Google is getting in on the action, testing Chipotle burrito delivery by drone at the Virginia Tech campus. But none of these drone demonstrations to date answer these questions: How would drones really improve the delivery process? And, who will reap the benefits?
"As far as when it will happen and who’s going to be the frontrunner, it really remains to be seen."
"It’s definitely a future that will happen, but as far as when and who’s going to be the frontrunner, it really remains to be seen," says Anna Tauzin, senior marketing manager for innovation and entrepreneurial services for the National Restaurant Association.
That’s the thing about new technology: Everyone wants it, but no one wants to pay for it. Especially most restaurants, which operate on razor-thin margins, says Tauzin, who organizes the association’s Restaurant Innovation Summit and connects restaurateurs to the tech community.
Even if drone technology becomes readily available, only 16 percent of restaurant operators say they would implement it, according to a National Restaurant Association report on technology trends. At this year’s Innovation Summit, there’s nary a mention of drone delivery in the agenda . "From a technology and regulation point of view, it’s still two to three years away ," Tauzin says.
Before drone makers can woo restaurant owners, the Federal Aviation Administration has to finesse regulations that would allow food delivery by drones in the first place. The first round of unmanned aircraft rules that rolled out this September set some basic guidelines for commercial drone operators, but plenty of constraints remain. For instance, drone operators have to keep a visual line of sight of the aircraft and "may not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation."
That doesn’t sound very viable if you’re a restaurant owner trying to jet a pizza across town. While the United States is merely dipping its toe into drone delivery operations, New Zealand residents might actually start seeing pizza drones later this year . This August, Nevada-based drone-maker Flirtey started testing pizza delivery with Domino’s Pizza Enterprises in New Zealand. The first test , on a rainy August day, involved sending pizza from the store to an airfield, but future tests will include store to home delivery, says Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny.
"New Zealand has the most liberal commercial drone regulations… about one to two years ahead of the U.S.," he says. After New Zealand, Domino’s and Flirtey plan to roll out similar operations in the Netherlands, Japan, and Australia. Flirtey owns, maintains, and runs the drone operation for companies it partners with, and receives payment per delivery. Sweeny did not provide details on the cost of developing drones, but claims the delivery service will have pricing on par with other premium "last-mile delivery services." Each of those services have different ways of taking their cut. For instance, Amazon Fresh charges a yearly membership fee of $299. Fresh Direct charges a fee for each delivery (around $7 depending on where you live).
"As the drone is hovering outside your house, you step outside, push a button, receive the package, and you’re good to go."
Flirtey started out delivering textbooks by drone in Australia, then moved to Silicon Valley to be near the tech scene. From there, the company switched its headquarters to Nevada because it remains one of the few testing zones for drone delivery in the United States. In past few years, they’ve done some of the first FAA-sanctioned drone tests — including delivery of a first-aid package with food and water.
Sweeny sees the U.S. drone delivery constraints merely as a starting point. The first drone service in U.S. will most likely involve delivering over-the-counter medicines and food from convenience stores to homes , he says. Such deliveries to select homes in the United States could happen later this year, he adds.
"We’ll get this to the point where, as the drone is hovering outside your house, you step outside, push a button to confirm delivery, receive the package, and you’re good to go," Sweeny says.
When asked about the FAA’s current line-of-sight constraints, Sweeny says his service will initially conduct drone delivery within a mile of a store. A Flirtey employee will load the delivery contents onto the drone, then keep an eye on the sky (and on a "precision GPS" tracking the aircraft) when the drone and its products are airborne. As to the rule prohibiting drone flight over populations of people, Sweeny says the FAA has a waiver process to allow exceptions to the rule.He’s confident it’s one Flirtey will be able to get."We expect to be the first company with approvals to fly over people in the U.S. — and fly beyond line of sight in the future, as well."
Based on Sweeny’s vision, here’s what food delivery in the U.S. could look like: Say you’re a suburban parent stuck at home at night with sick kids. You pull up a 7-Eleven app for delivery and order some cough syrup and Taquitos for good measure. If you live within a mile of select drone-equipped stores, a Flirtey drone could deliver those products to you.
If Tauzin from the NRA is correct, individual restaurants are bearish when it comes to delivering their food direct to consumer via drone. Enter tech companies that operate delivery apps such as GrubHub here in the United States, Just Eat in the United Kingdom, and Foodpanda in Germany.
Foodpanda in particular is interested in utilizing the advantages of drone delivery in traffic-clogged cities it serves in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. With the current system, "You need to wait an hour or more to get your food," says CEO Ralf Wenzel. "We want to make sure it’s fast and it’s faster than everyone else."
Presumably, a drone could provide that speed since it can zoom above traffic-clogged streets. But Foodpanda is stuck in testing mode, because most, if not all, countries have few regulations in place for drones. The company spent this spring working on tests of food delivery by drone in Singapore. Along with some restaurant partners, they loaded up a drone with food, and sent it to be delivered to a city park. Another looming challenge is that drones would need access to apartment buildings to get to most residents of big cities, a huge technological and regulatory hurdle.
It remains to be seen who will drive the demand for food delivery by drone.
Though Foodpanda currently doesn’t employ delivery drivers directly — acting as the "middleman" between the consumer and the restaurant, which hires its own drivers, the company is working on building a platform that caters to all forms of delivery: vehicle, bike, and eventually drones. Wenzel says the company is open to the idea of owning the drones , since Foodpanda could afford the technology more than a small vendor.
Two-thirds of customers for Flirtey’s partners, 7-Eleven and Domino’s, are in the suburbs, so Flirtey isn’t focused yet on the dynamics of delivery in dense urban spaces. But, if need be, they could figure a way to deliver to apartments by having the drone meet the customer at a balcony, says Sweeny. But, that’s a few steps ahead of where they start.
"Initially, we will conduct drone delivery within a mile of the store," he says. "We can then work with FAA to incrementally get more approval."
Technology always takes longer than you think to take effect, says Sweeny, but when it happens, it moves faster than people anticipate.He believes we’re quickly reaching that "inflection point."
Drone-makers are obviously eager to peddle their wares, but it remains to be seenwho will drive the demand for food delivery by drone. Based on the National Restaurant Association survey of technology trends, restaurant operators have tepid interest. When restaurant operators were asked about the most important areas of technological development the next five years, eight percent responded that robotics and automation were most important. Meanwhile, 37 percent of restaurant operators listed customer ordering technology as most important, while 25 percent cited loyalty programs, and another 25 percent cited payment options.
With a restaurant industry that hypes slow food, organic, farm-to table trends, can there also be room for drone-delivered Soylent and gas-station burritos? Can we have our organic, GMO-free artisan-made cake and eat it too (after it’s delivered by robot)?
Tauzin loves that dichotomy. "You’ve got this huge maker movement that’s happening where people want to do things by hand and it’s old school and at the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, we’re talking about automation and robotics and drone delivery," she says. " What a time to be alive ."
Leah Shaffer is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis whose stories have appeared in Wired, The Atlantic and Discover.
Editor: Erin DeJesus