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article imageOp-Ed: World first Google drone delivery approved in Australia

By Paul Wallis     Apr 9, 2019 in Technology
Canberra - After trials, Australia’s air safety authority CASA has approved a commercial drone delivery service in suburbs of Canberra, Australia’s capital. The regulator has given the OK for expanded commercial trials with local business partnerships.
Known as Project Wing, and operated by Google parent Alphabet, food, medicine and more will be delivered to suburbia in airborne style. Project Wing is an ongoing initiative which has been in operation for about 4 years. The suburban deliveries are tied to partnership agreements with local businesses and can deliver orders in minutes. This initiative could completely rewrite how businesses manage deliveries in urban areas, from top to bottom. There are direct positive cost implications for partnering businesses, too, another incentive to add on top of fast delivery.
The back story to drone deliveries
Initial trials in the suburb of Bonython in Canberra were flawless in practice. There were no safety issues, and deliveries were highly efficient. The main issues, in fact, came from drone noise, and complaints about invasion of privacy and disturbing native birds. Some locals were pretty hostile, and a petition about the drones gathered 500 signatures. The residents using the service, however, were strongly positive about the deliveries, so the drones did cause a degree of local polarization among the community.
These complaints were heard and acted upon, and the new drone deliveries are quieter and less disruptive. The company says the drones don’t carry cameras (most likely meaning they navigate by maps, rather than active hardware) and don’t constitute any sort of threat to privacy.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority, CASA, the national regulator, has approved drone deliveries for the suburbs of Crace, Franklin, and Palmerston. This is the next stage of drone delivery development, and is effectively the working test case for full scale services in future. CASA has been heavily involved in drone regulation, and the agency’s current benchmark requirements are very no-nonsense.
To drone or not to drone? Business angles
In the midst of the usual new tech mayhem, and of course evangelistic hype from the depths of someone’s idea of promotional values, a few issues are obvious:
1.Drone deliveries need to deliver dollar values to partner companies. This means cheaper, faster, better, and safer. The dollar values have to compare to all other forms of delivery. In Australia, where couriers are everywhere all the time, prices are highly competitive. The numbers will have to stack up across a framework of delivery needs and costs.
2. Hazards are an issue. Drones face challenges other types of deliveries don’t. A single marauding magpie in Spring could do some real damage, and drop a drone on someone. The magpie would also drop a significant tonnage of legal issues, including liabilities, insurance, etc. on some lucky recipient. If some of our bigger birds get interested, you could also be looking at a few fairly thoroughly trashed drones.
3. Capacity is an issue. Exactly what can be delivered by drone will need to be well defined. Drones can deliver quite significant loads, but at this point, they’re roughly in the shopping basket scale of sizes. This could be a particularly irritating problem, if people order over-capacity loads and they can’t be delivered by drones. Basic engineering and safe load factors also dictate load sizes.
4. Increased drone traffic could become an expensive issue. On the current scale, drone traffic is not a problem, but it could be a big future issue. Like anything which flies, air safety is about more than planes not bumping in to each other, or anything else. Like planes, drones may need a coordination system to maintain and monitor traffic. (Onboard systems like proximity systems can only go so far, and if they don’t work, hazards are actually increased.) That could cost big money, and add costs to drone operations, which would then waddle on to add costs to deliveries and businesses. Again, the numbers will do the talking.
So far, looking good
The drones are obviously getting a good level of acceptance in the market from businesses, and from customers. The novelty factor alone will guarantee a lot of interest, as will convenience. Just about all business considerations are currently likely to be positive. Australia’s clogged roads could use some added space, and faster deliveries are great for turnover.
(Before couriers get too worried - It’s not necessarily economic for couriers to run around over large distances in cities with small loads which can be time consuming to deliver. Margins can be tight, maintenance costs are high, and the drones could free up capacity for couriers to do more deliveries for better returns.)
The issues cited in the original trial at Bonython, however, are likely perennials. The noise issue is fixable, but the image of drones as potential invaders of privacy is now ingrained, and needs to be fixed for better acceptance.
The fact that camera navigation is inherently impractical for deliveries, of course, won’t get a mention. There’s no easier way to get lost than to use a moving or hovering airborne camera under manual control in an area you don’t know.
I’d advise Google to publicly address this issue, and make it clear the drones are navigating using the equivalent of something well known, like Google maps, rather than any sort of manually guided navigation. That straightens out the privacy issues, and also adds a bit of reassurance that deliveries will be very simple and straightforward for consumers.
The future will be dropping in soon enough, somewhere near you. Keep an open mind, and if you do have a complaint, make the complaint directly, and ASAP, so it can be fixed. Otherwise, look forward to a better way to get your deliveries.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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