As Uber seeks to attract investors ahead of a potential initial public offering (IPO) with aspirations beyond ridesharing, food delivery in the skies might be in the company’s not-so-distant future: It is reportedly looking to launch drones for takeout in the next few years. In a job posting, the company noted that it wanted to make delivery drones work by 2019 at the earliest, and have the drones operational in some markets when 2021 rolls around.
The ad, which has since been taken offline after The Wall Street Journal asked for a comment on the post, called for a new hire to “enable safe, legal, efficient and scalable flight operations.” (An Uber spokesperson told the paper that the posting “does not fully reflect our program, which is still in very early days.”)
Uber’s talk of a future where hungry consumers have takeout delivered by drones is not entirely new: At a Flying Taxi conference in May, Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi simply said, “We need flying burgers.” Those patties, too, would be fast food. The CEO noted that deliveries could possibly come to consumers in as quickly as five minutes to a half hour. This new delivery method, however, will not come to market overnight, as there are still regulatory hurdles for Uber to overcome.
For starters, rules for operating vehicles out of the vision of ground operators need to be devised by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Those, according to industry insiders, would not likely be made public before the first quarter of 2019. In addition, the agency has to create rules of reliable drone identification and night flights. While Congress put forward a 2019 deadline for initial permitting plans for drone delivery, the implementation of those rules could continue into the following year.
Aside from regulations, Uber also has to deal with the operational challenges that come with using drones as methods of delivery. Bad weather, for instance, could hinder the ability of drones to take off. In addition, drones might have a hard time landing in the right space on a customer’s lawn. And Uber might have to contend with the unfortunate potential for theft or vandalism of its drones. But despite the challenges, drone development has marched on at Uber, and other companies.
Food Delivery in the Skies
Beyond Uber, drone delivery company Flytrex is aiming to solve in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). The pair is slated to test commercial deliveries using unmanned aerial vehicles in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Under a drone delivery model, customers order food through a restaurant’s app and runners take the meal to a central drone launch location. From there, the drone will fly to the customer’s home and can be tracked via an app.
Once the drone has arrived, the customer will receive a notification and, using a feature integrated with the restaurant’s app or a link provided by Flytrex, direct the drone to lower the package via a wire. An operator can control up to five drones at a time using a control center dashboard, which enables management of more trips with less effort and faster transport for restaurants.
In markets outside of the United States, drones are beginning to take hold as well. Take Ele.me, which has been cleared to deliver orders in a Shanghai industrial park by drone. However, the system won’t bring meals to their final destinations, but only to select drop-off points. With the drone delivery system, Ele.me customers would be able to order meals through their smartphones and have them delivered soon after confirming an order.
To process the orders, Ele.me’s workers would collect multiple orders and place them inside a drone at the route’s starting point. Once drones reached a drop-off location, workers would distribute the meals to the final destination. With drone deliveries, Ele.me could have lower operating costs, since fewer human delivery drivers would be needed to transport the company’s deliveries. Furthermore, Ele.me wouldn’t charge customers extra fees for using the drone delivery service.
As of now, Ele.me has people delivering food on motorbikes across China — and Ele.me is hardly the only company in China working on drone delivery. ZTO Express, an express delivery company, believes that using drones to deliver goods in rural China is possible. In an interview with CNBC last November, ZTO Express CFO James Guo said that drone delivery could be especially helpful for Chinese shoppers in rural areas, improving overall accessibility of Chinese businesses to those remote places, amid other benefits. The idea, in all, is that drones can be a helpful – and high-tech – way to handle last-mile deliveries.
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