Are Drone Deliveries on the Radar?

Clive Maxfield
|  January 8, 2020

How long will it be before delivery drones fill the skies? Image source:

I love reading science fiction books and watching science fiction movies. This year I will be celebrating the 21st anniversary of the 21st anniversary of my 21st birthday (think about it), and it's amazing to me how many of the technology concepts I used to read about in my formative years -- literally the stuff of science fiction -- have come to pass, albeit not always in ways we expected.

A classic example is the Star Trek Communicator from the original series. I don’t know if this inspired the first flip phone -- the StarTAC, which was introduced by Motorola in 1996 -- but when I first saw one it was like déjà vu all over again (did someone just say that?). By the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, everyone on the program was wearing communicator badges -- they just tapped their badges and started talking -- much like the Wearable AI Voice Recorder I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's "The Sentinel," the archetypal 2001: A Space Odyssey movie, which debuted over half a century ago in 1968, included many forward-looking items, including a tablet computer that looks suspiciously like my iPad Pro. This movie also featured an artificially intelligent assistant in the form of the HAL 9000. These days we have the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. All I'm saying is that the chances are slight that I will ever place Alexa in charge of my Pod Bay Doors.



Since the early 1960s, induction loops in the form of wires buried at road junctions have been used to detect the presence of vehicles and use this information as part of the algorithms employed by traffic lights. When I was about 12 years old, circa 1969, and had only recently started thinking about electronics, I vaguely envisioned a future in which it was possible to detect where cars were on the roads and how fast they were moving (or not, as the case might be). My idea was to use this information to detect traffic jams and areas of congestion and to guide other cars onto different routes.

Unfortunately, the only technology I could think of to detect the presence of cars at that time was induction loops, and even I -- the eternal optimist -- realized that implementing these along every stretch of road in the country would be prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, if some central system did detect any problems, there was no way for it to direct the traffic to take alternative routes.

Of course, it never struck me that one day we would all have smartphones (or cell phones, for that matter) or that we would have technologies like GPS (the original 24-satellite system didn’t become fully operational until 1993). Even when GPS did become commercially available, the units were big and bulky and hard to use. As far back as 2000, I had no idea that GPS would be integrated into smartphones and cars, and that these systems could be tracked by radio towers and the resulting information be used to determine traffic problems and display alternative routes on Google Maps.

In several science fiction stories, like one of my all-time favorites, Steel Beach by John Varley, people use some sort of pneumatic delivery system that allows them to order things like clothes and have them delivered to their apartments in a matter of minutes. The interesting thing is that -- to the best of my recollection -- I don’t remember ever reading a story in which a drone was used to deliver goods to anyone.

Air, land, and sea

As an aside, when most people hear the word "drone," they tend to think of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). In particular, although there are fixed-wing drones, most folks think of rotorcraft in the form of quadcopters, hexacopters, or octocopters with four, six, or eight rotor assemblies (propellers and motors), respectively. However, in addition to aerial drones, there are also land-based drones and sea-based drones.

For example, as per this Kim Komando column, Amazon's autonomous land-based delivery drones are already being deployed in select neighborhoods in Irvine, California. Meanwhile, sea-based drones could find tremendous use delivering supplies to remote locations in archipelagos such as the Faroe Islands (779 islands, islets, and skerries, of which 18 count as major islands), the Philippines (7,641 islands, approximately 2,000 of which are inhabited), and Indonesia (more than 17,000 islands). All I can say is that I'm glad I didn’t take geography at high school in Indonesia.

Multiple organizations are working on sea-based drones; this The Register column describes how the little rascals are being evaluated off the coast of Britain.

Are we there yet?

Unfortunately, I can usually see both sides (or more) to an argument, and I oftentimes find myself sitting on the horns of a dilemma, which can be jolly uncomfortable, let me tell you.

On the one hand, I've been looking forward to a Jetson's future since the program first aired in 1962. I think I'd like to look up at the skies and see delivery drones merrily buzzing their way back and forth. On the other hand, I love sitting on our front porch with my wife (Gina the Gorgeous), basking in the sound of silence, broken only by the occasional birds tweeting and crickets chirping.

In the case of aerial delivery drones, GPS and related technologies are sufficiently developed to get the drones into the ballpark, while object detection and recognition systems will prevent the little scamps from flying into things like power lines, telegraph poles, and buildings. But what about kids' toys left lying around, or kids running around -- what will the drone make of these? In the short term, it may be that human operators (who could be located anywhere in the world) fly the drones via remote control, but it won’t be long before developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning allow the drones to be fully autonomous (see also What the FAQ are AI, ANNs, ML, DL, and DNNs?).

And then there's the weather. It's great to talk about having a package delivered 30 minutes after you've placed your order. However, although drone delivery is an attractive option on a warm, sunny day with little wind; it's less so on a gusty day with lots of rain, in which case your package might reach you faster (and in better condition) by truck.

I can’t tell you how many times the folks from Fed Ex and UPS have left a package for me leaning against the garage door exposed to the elements. This is particularly frustrating since we have a covered porch that is closer to the road than the garage (give me strength). So, what about delivery drones? Will they simply drop your package in the middle of the driveway for you to reverse over when you back out of the garage, or leave it in the middle of the yard for the sprinkler system to say "Hi there" in its own special way?

As a society, we already have tremendous problems with package pilferers stealing boxes left on porches -- packages presented in the middle of the drive would make even more tempting targets, and what about the possibility of hackers taking control of the drones and flying your packages to illicit retrieval locations?

It may be that someone has to be home to take delivery of the package as it's delivered, but this sort of negates the convenience of the airborne delivery in the first place, unless you have a house droid that can scamper around retrieving any packages that fly in while you're out (if you see what I mean).

In addition to technological concerns, there is also a mountain of legislative issues to be overcome in order to allow drones to fly autonomously over built-up areas and at night.

Having said all this, according to this NRP article, "it is increasingly likely that drone deliveries to our homes will soon take off." I'm no longer sure whether I should be excited or concerned. What say you?

About Author

About Author

Clive "Max" Maxfield received his BSc in Control Engineering in 1980 from Sheffield Hallam University, England and began his career as a designer of central processing units (CPUs) for mainframe computers. Over the years, Max has designed everything from silicon chips to circuit boards and from brainwave amplifiers to steampunk Prognostication Engines (don't ask). He has also been at the forefront of Electronic Design Automation (EDA) for more than 30 years.

Well-known throughout the embedded, electronics, semiconductor, and EDA industries, Max has presented papers at numerous technical conferences around the world, including North and South America, Europe, India, China, Korea, and Taiwan. He has given keynote presentations at the PCB West conference in the USA and the FPGA Forum in Norway. He's also been invited to give guest lectures at several universities in the US and at Oslo University in Norway. In 2001, Max "shared the stage" at a conference in Hawaii with former Speaker of the House, "Newt" Gingrich.

Max is the author of a number of books, including Designus Maximus Unleashed (banned in Alabama), Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics), EDA: Where Electronics Begins, FPGAs: Instant Access, and How Computers Do Math.

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