I recently wrote an article demanding drone-based pizza delivery and asking the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency to make a plan to commercialize drone use. I was inspired by an ambitious Domino’s franchisee in the UK testing the concept. Right now commercial drone use is not allowed in the U.S. (for the most part) and mass commercial uses are definitely verboten. This is too bad because freeing the drones could radically improve the hyperlocal shopping experience.
My basic point was that drones are the perfect last-mile delivery vehicle for small loads. This has been the friction point for most local merchants and the focus of attention of many startups including TaskRabbit (outsourced tasks), InstaCart and AmazonFresh (groceries), and too many meal delivery services to number (on top of existing ones such as Waiter.com). Ultimately, I envision a future where the drones do all the local delivery and put the brick-and-mortar shops on much more even footing with Amazon and other larger providers.
As I pointed out in my column, drones are cheap and getting cheaper compared to cars or bikes. Drones are eco-friendly — electric motors, no emissions. But to date, operating a drone has been a bit of a chore. Meaning, you need to manipulate a joystick and have a decent amount of flying expertise. In the not-so-distant future, this will no longer be the case. Drones will be quite capable of auto-piloting themselves to a specified GPS coordinate within an accuracy of a meter or so.
A merchant will be able to buy a drone with that capability or subscribe to a service (and rent a drone, perhaps). The drone can sit in small cart in the store or something like that. A shopper will, from their smart phone, call in to buy something and request delivery. They will then push a button on their phone, just like you do with Uber. Or the user could put a small beacon in their front yard or car port where they want delivery. That will fix their delivery location. (For the very small dragonfly drones and small packages such as drugs, this delivery could actually go into a garage or even in the house through a window or door).
The merchant will load the drone, put it outside his shop, and push a green “Go” button on his own smartphone. The drone will then deliver the package within minutes. Why would I use this service? Because if I can buy from people that I have a personal relationship with and enjoy the same frictionless commerce and zero hassle, I will do it much of the time. AmazonPrime has already proven that price is less important than immediacy (in my experience, AmazonPrime offers almost never have the lowest price).
For people who say the drones will comprise a safety issue, I say, this is a technology problem that is eminently solvable. Very few aircraft fly below 500 feet, which is where drones would probably fly. Most journeys would be rather short. And I think the volume of flights would be less impactful than people may initially realize (think of it – we are all quite used to huge volumes of cars going buy which are much noisier). If I were a mom-and-pop retailer, this is something I would really watch for the future because if you can cheaply match the cost of what the big players are providing in real-time delivery, you will have a much better position.
Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of Businessweek.com. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every once in a while on Street Fight.