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So How Will Drone Deliveries Work Exactly?

Ukraine's postal service is getting ready to launch a drone delivery service that starts working out the logistics of what's really involved.

So How Will Drone Deliveries Work Exactly?

Ukraine has joined a number of postal services that are testing drones. But these tests are doing more than hooking up a parcel to a quadcopter, flying it, and then discussing the implications. The Ukrainian postal service, UkrPoshta, is working with the Israeli drone company Flytrex to bring regular drone deliveries to the country.

The chief advantage of drone deliveries is that they are cheap. Each drone delivery costs just $0.15, even though it runs point-to-point, heading out from the depot to the delivery destination and back again for each package. Three drones are expected to be able to ferry the same amount of cargo as one van—without the expense of a driver. "It never needs to take a lunch break," says Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash.

The other advantage is speed. The Flytrex drone is called the Mule: their range is 14 miles and the top speed is 44 miles per hour. Individual deliveries are a lot faster, even than a bike courier, because they fly in a straight line to the destination, and they fly above traffic. The system is controlled by software that is programmed with the topology of the city—building heights and so on—plus any no-fly zones. The controller can also lock out any part of the city instantly, in response to law enforcement requests or for reasons of safety. The drones will then re-route, and in bad weather, all flights are grounded.

So would drone delivery work? In Ukraine’s plan, customers must opt in to drone delivery, using a companion app. When the drone takes off for delivery, they get a notification with an ETA and can head to the delivery site. These sites depend on the laws of the country. In Ukraine, the drones can only fly to pre-approved locations, but in theory the drone could deliver to the customer’s back yard. When the drone arrives, it sends another notification. And this is where the fun starts.

There are several ways that the system can verify that you’re the addressee—if it delivered to your home, you could tell it that you approve your husband or wife to receive it, for example. The UkrPoshta system uses location verification—the same app you used to arrange the delivery uses your phone’s GPS to confirm that you are at the delivery site. "You want to make the local regulator comfortable with what you’re doing," says Bash, adding that Flytrex can tailor the verification to any requirements.

The drone then lowers your parcel on a 50-foot cable. The idea is that you never come near the drone and its eight spinning rotors—they’re dangerous machines that should be kept away from soft human flesh.

Safety-wise, Bash says that "The chance of being injured is very, very low." The insurance industry, he says, is basing its metrics for delivery drones on those of cars. Not that cars are particularly safe, but if the conservative insurance industry isn’t too worried, then I guess that’s some comfort. The Mule is also an octocopter, and even if two of its rotors fail it can continue on just fine with the other six, to reach its destination with the parcel. Bash says that the units will probably have parachutes, too, but that the added complexity, and the chance of accidental deployment, means they can end up doing more harm than good.

I asked Bash: What about all those drones buzzing through the streets above our heads? He dismisses this as a problem. "We’re already used to cars," he said. "We’re even used to 747s flying over us. People get used to anything pretty quickly." That’s a good point, but having to get used to something doesn’t mean we’ll like it. To an outsider, cars in our cities would seem absurd. Whether we get used to them or not, drones will be yet another form of visual and noise pollution.

But while we’ll probably see an anti-drone backlash when and if these things go live, it’ll probably quiet down as soon as we realize how convenient they are. Same-day Amazon delivery is going to shut up a lot of counter-arguments, I expect.

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related video: We should worry about the ethics of drone warfare

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