It’s natural to be dubious about revolutionary technologies when they’re first introduced. (Lightbulbs? They’ll never take off – no one has electricity in their home. Motor cars? What’s the point? Horses are just as fast, cheaper and you don't have to worry about finding a petrol station.) Yet just because the hype is sometimes true, it doesn’t mean every new oddball tech paraded about at trade shows is going to change the world.
Take drones. Disciples may dream of a future where swarms of drones flurry about according to some unfathomable algorithm, catering to our every whim in real time. But all most of us see now is the odd ungainly quadrocopter with an HD camera attached, piloted by that weirdo in the local park. How do we know whether to believe the hype?
This is the most immediate obstacle between dream and reality. The drone of the future would need an automated control system involving thousands of flying vehicles dodging buildings, birds, planes, trees, wires and each other, all while travelling at 50mph. There’d need to be watertight cyber security to prevent hacking, advanced engines capable of getting the drone across the city without making too much noise, some form of airbag technology to stop falling drones from hurting anyone and some way of handling bad weather.
None of these things are within reach now, but they are not impossible. With sufficient time, effort and money, it’s hard to bet against the likes of Google and Amazon solving these problems.
A widespread system of drone delivery may be feasible in the not-too-distant future, but there’ll be no real incentive to develop it without a profound change in the regulatory environment. In the UK, for instance, it is currently illegal to fly a drone within 150m of a congested area, or directly overhead of people, vehicles, vessels or property. Commercial drone licensees, of which there are 1557 in Britain, are also required to operate all drones manually, within line of sight and 500m of the pilot. Rules in the US are even stricter.
A large scale delivery drone network (automated or otherwise) obviously cannot exist under those conditions. Yet why would the conditions change? So long as there are still reports of collisions like the one reported to have taken place at Heathrow airport, public and governmental trust in the new technology will be limited.
For an automated system to be allowed, there’d be an even greater burden of proof. Much like driverless cars, drones would need to be demonstrably, significantly safer than the alternative (in this case, the white van man) to get the green light – and that will take time.
The ultimate test of a new technology’s worth, and probably the drone’s greatest problem. We don’t really need it, do we? Drones can't make larger deliveries such as groceries, while the current arrangements – same day delivery, next day and click-and-collect – are usually perfectly adequate for smaller purchases. Half way up Ben Nevis and realised you forgot your favourite fleece? Thirty minute drone delivery would come in handy. Half way up a block of flats and got the munchies (even though there’s Tesco Express five minutes away), not so much – particularly when the drone option is likely to be an order of magnitude more expensive.
This doesn’t mean drone delivery is a pipe dream. It may be that road traffic will be so unbearable on our streets in 10 or 20 years' time that drones will be the only option. Google, Amazon and the others may indeed get the technology right and cut the costs as they scale it up, but only if they can first prove to regulators and the public that it’s safe. So long as drone hobbyists flout rules like not flying anywhere near an airport, that’s not going to happen.