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Finally, There’s a Halfway Compelling Consumer Drone Delivery Service

August 23, 2017

So far, trials of delivery drones for everyday folks have been rather more hype than substance, but a new service in Iceland may change that.

Drone delivery firm Flytrex announced today that it is providing a new service for the Icelandic e-commerce company AHA. Its drones will be used to deliver packages weighing up to 6.5 pounds from AHA's HQ in Reykjavik to a patch of land two miles across a bay. It will complete 20 deliveries per day initially, with that number planned to rise to over 100 soon. It takes four minutes for the drone to cross the bay, which is over 20 minutes faster than driving to the site in traffic. So far it’s delivered items as varied as sushi and waffle makers.

The firm has permission from Icelandic Transport Authority to fly the drones along a route out of line-of-sight, and a controller is alerted to emergencies where another aircraft may get in the way, in order to prevent collisions. Currently, customers will have to pick up deliveries from a designated drop-off zone, or have them delivered the last few hundred yards by AHA staff. But Yariv Bash, a cofounder of Flytrex, tells MIT Technology Review that the firm is just “weeks or months” away from being allowed by the ITA to make deliveries to AHA customers' backyards. He says that will make delivery costs “an order of magnitude less” than those of conventional deliveries by van. Flytrex will hand the system over to AHA in a few weeks, so the retailer will control the deliveries itself.

The volume of drop-offs, the hand-off of the technology, and the impending possibility of backyard deliveries set the scheme apart from other consumer drone delivery trials—such as Amazon’s tests in the U.K., which so far serve only two paying customers who live on the opposite side of a field from the experiment’s base. Elsewhere, the most notable drone delivery service is being developed by Zipline in Rwanda, where winged aircraft carry medical supplies to remote health centers.

There are, of course, many barriers to widespread drone delivery. Shipping small products over short distances is fine, but improvements must be made to performance and battery life if people are going to receive anything larger than a waffle maker through the air. And while Flytrex may have overcome regulatory issues in Iceland, they remain tough to negotiate elsewhere, especially in America.

Still, Bash thinks we'll all soon become converts. “A hundred years ago we didn’t have cars or scooters, but once you've learned that driving a Model T [Ford] is better than horseback riding, you realize the benefits,” he says. “Once you realize that you can receive orders in 15 minutes instead of waiting for next-day delivery and it’s going to cost you the same price, you won’t look back.”

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