One of the biggest challenges to drone delivery is the fact that most drones are limited in how far they can fly. One of IBM’s latest patents looks to take a stab at ameliorating that with a plan that essentially looks like a relay race for drones.
IBM’s patent enables drones to pass off packages to each other mid-flight. The way it would work is each drone would have extendable arms that can connect mid-flight to transfer a package between the other. A communication system between the two drones would enable them to know where the other drone was.
It’s feasible that if the system took off, people wouldn’t need drone landing pads on their homes or businesses for delivery drones to drop off goods. Instead, they might be able to send their own drone to retrieve the package from the delivery drone.
Hypothetically, IBM’s plans could solve existing problems with delivery drones including limited flight range, theft of unattended packages once delivered, and a lack of delivery network optimization. The patent was filed on Jan. 4, 2016.
It is worth noting that drone delivery is likely a long way out.
Drone delivery companies in the U.S. face tricky government regulations, including rules that require drones to remain within a pilot’s line of sight and not fly over people who aren’t involved in the commercial flight.
There is also the issue of air-traffic control for drones. NASA won’t present its research on drone traffic management to the FAA until 2019.
Companies also face a stiff logistical test in moving from one-off tests to regular, on-demand deliveries. That scaling is the biggest challenge, according to Joshua Ziering, founder of now-defunct drone company QuiQui, which was intended to deliver pharmacy items. Ziering has since turned his attention to building Kittyhawk, a fleet-management platform.
“The logistics of having a base station [where drones are loaded with cargo], battery charging and maintenance operations are challenges that go into being able to scale,” said Ziering.
Even if those hurdles are overcome, such a system might not be financially feasible. A drone is faster than a car but slower than an airplane, and while cars and planes can carry freight by the pound or the ton, most drones only carry a few pounds.
“Drone delivery is about 10,000 times more expensive than UPS or FedEx Ground,” said Aerotas founder Logan Campbell. “Ground infrastructure is really efficient. Look at Google Express and TaskRabbit. Even a fully scaled drone-delivery program will be hard-pressed to create cost advantages.”