More than four years ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos promised in an interview that aired on “60 Minutes” that drones would be delivering small items to people’s homes within a half hour of the order being placed.
“I know this looks like science fiction,” he said. “It’s not.”
At the time, he said drone deliveries could happen as early as 2015, but more realistically within four to five years (which would have been 2017 or 2018).
More than four years later, the thought of Amazon drones landing at your doorstep is still a lot more like science fiction than reality.
The U.S. Department of Transportation this week announced the names of the 10 state and local governments that it has selected to conduct flight tests as part of its new Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. The program pairs governments up with private companies to test types of drone flights that are currently banned in the U.S., including flying drones at night, flying over people and, yes, package delivery.
Among the companies chosen to be a part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone pilot program include Flytrex, an Iceland-based food delivery company, Zipline, a startup that is currently using drones to deliver blood to hospitals in Africa, Matternet, which also delivers medical supplies to developing countries, and Flirtey, which had been marketing itself with high-profile drone delivery partnerships with companies such as Domino’s Pizza.
149 companies and local governments had applied to be part of the FAA’s program, and just 10 were chosen. And notably absent from that list of drone delivery companies? Amazon.
“While it’s unfortunate the applications we were involved with were not selected, we support the Administration’s efforts to create a pilot program aimed at keeping America at the forefront of aviation and drone innovation,” Brian Huseman, Vice President of Amazon Public Policy, said in a prepared statement. “At Amazon Prime Air, we’re focused on developing a safe operating model for drones in the airspace and we will continue our work to make this a reality.”
When will drone delivery become mainstream in the U.S.?
There is still not a single place in America where any regular customer can download an app, purchase a product, press go and watch a drone fly to their house.
And that likely won’t change anytime soon. The FAA’s announcement on Monday simply enables the hand-picked companies to test concepts and report their findings back to the government. That information will then be used to help the FAA as it crafts new rules enabling more complex drone operations.
That’s not to say drone delivery isn’t happening elsewhere.
Alphabet’s Project Wing had been testing drone delivery to people’s backyards in Australia, but even that came with a caveat: you must-have been pre-selected, and the only items you need delivered come from one of two stores: Mexican food chain Guzman y Gomez or pharmacy Chemist Warehouse. A Google spokesperson said those tests were designed to focus on sensor technology, to help drones autonomously find the most ideal place to drop a package in the customer’s backyard.
“You can’t build a delivery service if you can’t deliver where the customer wants it,” a Google spokesperson said in an interview with MarketWatch last year. “We want to build a system that can deliver things from wherever they’re located to wherever they’re needed. If you have a headache, you shouldn’t have to walk a kilometer, but instead you should get that Advil to your backyard.”
Zipline’s CEO Keller Rinaudo said the company has been successful in its Rwandan tests. The company has distribution centers around the country, which send out drones carrying medicines to any one of about three dozen hospitals in Rwanda. If hospitals need a specific medical product but are out of the stock, they put out a call via an app, and the drone autonomously navigates from a medical warehouse to that hospital, where it drops the medical supply and flies back to its warehouse.
While Keller said that the Rwandan tests are successful, he said he doesn’t think drones will be making deliveries of people’s Amazon Prime orders anytime soon.
“Everybody and their grandma is talking about drone delivery, but we don’t think the potential of that technology is to delivery tennis shoes or pizza to your backyard, for at least the next 10 years,” Rinaudo said in an interview with MarketWatch earlier this year.
Even Alphabet’s drone delivery efforts may have been overstated. Project Wing, which previously said it expected to be operating a drone delivery service by 2017, had briefly been testing drone delivery at Virginia Tech via a partnership with ChipotleCMG, +0.06% Some customers expressed disappointment as they watched their burritos fly no farther than over a hill.
“I think at first a lot of people thought the burritos would get delivered to our apartment,” said Makena Glemser, a junior at Virginia Tech, in an earlier story on MarketWatch. “That would have been cooler.”
The FAA’s pilot program is expected to last two and a half years. Regulations legalizing drone delivery likely won’t be released until after that, which means Bezos’s hopes of drone delivery by 2015 are farther out than we thought.
“There is also a lot of cynicism in the industry because there have been a lot of promises made and broken,” Rinaudo said.