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MIT Technology Review

Burrito-Delivering Drones—Seriously?

Automated package drops might improve the efficiency of shipping one day, but for now experiments are gimmicks that pander to stereotypes.

September 12, 2016

In the not-too-distant future, drones may be able to ferry products to your front door. But until several wrinkles hindering their widespread adoption are ironed out, the companies developing the underlying technologies seem intent on using irritating stunts to convince us of their worth.

Alphabet has announced that it’s collaborating with Chipotle to deliver burritos across the campus of Virginia Tech using its Project Wing drones. The university is one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s approved drone test sites, so the location is understandable—but the choice of payload is a little harder to stomach. It’s easy enough to imagine a meeting in which the concept was settled upon: “Students like burritos! Let’s send them burritos!”

Undeniably, it is a marketing gimmick. It’s also very obviously flawed: a single burrito can fill a single hungry student’s belly. Unless we’re talking about squadrons of drones on nonstop dorm runs, though, what hope is there of feeding a crowd of ravenous college kids? (A cannon might be a better idea. Or if that’s not advanced enough, perhaps a Hyperloop for food.)

Walking into a store to score a burrito is *so* inconvenient.

Sadly, it’s not the only delivery service being tested that leans on stereotypes. In London, the robots of Starship Technologies are being employed by two food delivery startups, Just Eat and Pronto, to ferry food to the doors of customers in search of takeout. With a top speed of four miles per hour, it would literally be faster to walk and collect the food—but couch potatoes want food delivered to them, so why not incentivize a little less exercise?

It’s not just drone testing that’s embracing these kinds of gimmicks. Last summer, the taxi-hailing app Gett offered Londoners the chance to order a bottle of chilled Veuve Clicquot champagne—two flutes included—and have it delivered straight to their door within 10 minutes for the princely sum of £50 (around $70).

Rarely has a service been more squarely aimed at bankers. That’s unlikely to be by accident: the service was only available in Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, the City, Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Chelsea, and Kensington—the last three of which are the most expensive parts of London in which to live.

Better, perhaps, to focus on testing drone delivery services where they may actually add value. Zipline’s first real-world trial of its delivery drones, for instance, was carried out in Rwanda, where the aircraft were actually shuttling supplies of blood and drugs to remote health-care centers. The company plans to expand into the U.S. soon, but when it does so it will carry medical supplies out to rural parts of the U.S.—including Smith Island in Maryland and some Native American reservations.

While companies continue to grapple with the many and varied difficulties of getting drones to carry packages to our doors, it might be nice to see them following Zipline’s lead. Deliver something worthwhile, or don’t deliver at all.

(Read more: Bloomberg,  “Why Rwanda Is Going to Get the World’s First Network of Delivery Drones,” “Sorry, Shoppers: Delivery Drones Might Not Fly for a While”)