The suburbs as the perfect places for drone deliveries

Where might drones make deliveries? One project in Texas suggests the suburbs make a lot of sense for such deliveries:

Photo by Darrel Und on

Flytrex, which specializes in on-demand, ultrafast delivery for food and retail, is bringing food and grocery orders via drone to front and backyards.

According to a release, the service will be based in Granbury, in a partnership with restaurant chain Brinker International, home of Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and two virtual brands: It’s Just Wings and Maggiano’s Italian Classics.

The service is operating in cooperation with longtime partner Causey Aviation Unmanned under a newly granted Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waiver allowing a delivery radius of one nautical mile – reaching thousands of potential homes. Eligible households can order food via the Flytrex app.

Their focus is on the suburbs, where on-demand delivery has previously been viewed as commercially unviable, since traditional couriers can make only two deliveries per hour in such areas. They have a video showing a drone at work on YouTube.

Granbury is a small town of just over 11,000 residents roughly 30 miles southwest of Fort Worth and on the edge of the Dallas metropolitan area.

More broadly, it is interesting to note that the population densities of Granbury and the suburbs are what might make delivery by drone viable. Americans tend to like suburbs and driving. But, this is not as good for delivering food or other items. The same kind of space Americans like for their suburban homes does not work well with quick deliveries.

How many deliveries can drones make in an hour compared to vehicles? Are there also advantages to suburban deliveries from not having to encounter many tall buildings or obstacles?

If drones are better for suburban deliveries, are suburbanites open to drones flying above their homes to bring them things they have ordered? Suburbanites also like a connection to nature and drones may not provide that if they are flying or they can be heard above homes. The same drones that enable a consumer lifestyle do not necessarily fit with an image of quiet suburban properties.

The suburbs as the test market for delivering prescription medicine via drone

As firms test delivery via drone, one suburb in North Caroline will soon experience how using drones to deliver prescription medicine could work:

Photo by Darrel Und on

Zipline, a leading drone operator, will begin delivering prescription medicines to patients’ homes in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, this year, helping usher in the long-anticipated era of routine drone drops.

Why it matters: Battery-operated drones could satisfy our demand for “instant delivery” in less than 15 minutes, while easing traffic congestion, improving safety and helping the environment…

The trial, which awaits the FAA’s nod, will take place in and around Kannapolis, North Carolina, where Zipline has a distribution center serving nearby hospitals…

A big milestone will occur in a few months when Wing begins drone deliveries in Dallas, its first major metropolitan service area, starting with Walgreens.

Even as this article makes clear that this is already happening in other places, the suburban potential is intriguing for several reasons:

  1. If drones can deliver a lot of goods in suburbia, could this help unlock the hold of driving on suburbia or does it enable people to live even further apart?
  2. How do drones fit in a suburban landscape devoted to private property and proximity to nature? Drones could theoretically be quieter and less obvious than other options yet this could be considered intrusive in a new use of local airspace. Could some local governments ban their use?
  3. I wonder this about delivery possibilities now: how close do distribution centers or drone centers need to be to residential neighborhoods to enable same-day or quicker delivery? Residents like the idea of quicker delivery but having warehouses and distribution centers closer to homes has some limits.

It sounds like these drone deliveries are going to happen and they have the potential to impact suburban life in small – and maybe larger? – ways.

Quick roundup of notable Chicago by drone

Many have seen famous Chicago sights in person or via photography but here are links to some impressive videos of Chicago by drone. The best thing the drone adds to seeing Chicago? Changing the level of sight so as to not just be on the ground or above everything. Now, where is the ultra-impressive promotional video or commercial for Chicago utilizing this technology?

National Association of Realtors wants an exemption for drones

The National Association of Realtors is asking the FAA to allow the use of drones for selling real estate:

The trade group last month asked the Federal Aviation Administration for a regulatory exemption to the agency’s rule on the use of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes, saying the go-ahead would be a “game changer for the real estate industry” and a “creative and dynamic way” to present a property…

By the end of November, the FAA is expected to propose rules for the commercial use of drones that weigh less than 55 pounds.

For the real estate industry, an exemption could lead to widespread use of drones to market homes, the surrounding neighborhood and even the walk to school or drive to the closest grocery store…

“It’s great to offer an aerial view of a piece of property,” Rodriquez said. “Where it can really be used is on the home inspection side of things, inspecting roofs, before you send a live human up there. Do I think it’s going to be a game changer in the real estate industry? Possibly, but it all depends on how it’s marketed.”…

“For normal properties, normally sized properties, they are absolutely not necessary,” said Mario Greco, a real estate agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices KoenigRubloff Realty Group. “It’s hard enough to take a good picture of a condo, or a kitchen, with a professional camera.

This has some interesting potential, particularly with larger properties and places with backyards that are not easily seen from street views. It is often difficult to judge a backyard with typical photos. Still, the drone photos could hide certain features, like what you see from the back patio or deck, depending on the angle.

Yet, what would stop these drones from getting shots from other properties or photographing other things while in the air? I don’t want a whole mass of regulation for this but it is hard to limit drones once they are in the air.

When anti-government forces can control the public narrative about drone strikes in Yemen

While social media was praised in helping the Arab Spring movement, the new availability of Twitter in Yemen has changed who gets to control the public narrative about violence:

The result: AQAP and the Yemeni public have left the government far behind in an information war made possible by the spread of the Internet in the Arab world’s poorest nation. Authorities can no longer shape the narrative of counterinsurgency, particularly when it comes to controversial drone strikes…But the number of Internet users in the country increased nearly tenfold between 2010 and 2012, according to government figures, although even with that rapid expansion, less than a quarter of Yemenis have regular internet access.

Most drone strikes, which are believed to be US operations, target the most impoverished and isolated parts of Yemen where AQAP operates. The region’s remoteness plays into the group’s hands; it also makes it easy for the government to suppress any negative information, including civilian casualties from drone strikes and other aerial attacks.

But now Yemenis can easily, quickly share on-the-ground information. Last December, an airstrike targeted a wedding convoy, killing roughly a dozen civilians. The government initially identified the casualties as militants, but locals soon began posting photos of the dead on Facebook and tweeting the names of victims, directly challenging the government’s obfuscation.

Sounds like quite a change in a short amount of time. The availability of the Internet and social media threaten all sorts of traditional institutions that have relied on controlling information. All of the sudden, alternative viewpoints are available and regular citizens can pick and choose which to follow, believe, and propagate.

What does this do for American foreign policy? We generally disapprove of regimes that crack down on Internet availability (think China) but this is usually because we want to get our messages through. What happens when the same technologies are used to counter American narratives?

Using drones to sell expensive homes

What if the expensive home you are selling is really big or has stunning views? Show all of this better via drone:

On Monday, a house in the East Bay town of Alamo was being prepped to go on the market for nearly $1.5 million. To really showcase the home and its view of Mt Diablo, the realtors brought in a drone.

“You get the scale, you get the feeling of the actual home. You can see, ‘hey, this thing’s on an acre. This is what it looks like,’” said Randy Churchill of Dudum Real Estate…

Churchill says for the $500 he’ll spend on the drone video he may get 10,000 hits online, making it very cost-effective relative to hiring a private helicopter.

“This will be something that we do now on every home that we’re marketing in this price-point,” said Churchill.

This doesn’t sound all that expensive for a pricey home. I could see how this would be particularly useful for a house with numerous exterior features (as opposed to the caricatured McMansion where all of the impressive stuff is on the front and the sides and back are lifeless) or a big property, perhaps 1+ acres, where seeing it all is difficult through two dimensional pictures.

If drones do become normal parts of selling a home, how long until we see some drone images that are blurry or clearly below average, just like some of the photos available online today that appear to be taken with little skill?

What is better for small shopping trips: Amazon’s drones versus walkable neighborhoods

Delivering in the final mile is a problem. So what is better in combatting this issue: Amazon using drones or walkable neighborhoods?

“You have the technology that can help the most difficult part of delivery: The last-mile problem. You have a lightweight package going to a single destination. You cannot aggregate packages. It’s still way too complicated and expensive. It’s very energy inefficient,” Raptopoulous sad. “UAVs or drones deal with the problem of doing this very efficiently with extremely low cost and high reliability. It’s the best answer to the problem. The ratio of your vehicle to your payload is very low.”

Part of the argument is that our current last-mile delivery system can seem kind of ridiculous, at least from an energy efficiency point of view.

As Raptopoulous put it: “In the future, we think it’s going to make more sense to have a bottle of milk delivered to your house from Whole Foods rather than get in your car and drive two tons of metal on a congested road to go get it.”

Of course, we could also build walkable neighborhoods that don’t require driving as often as we do, but walkability requires density—and even places like San Francisco sometimes balk at the sorts of buildings that entails. And we’ve got a lot of low-density infrastructure in place that isn’t going away anytime soon.

The conclusion here seems to be that building walkable neighborhoods would be a good solution but untenable in lots of places because many Americans don’t want that kind of density. I suspect New Urbanists and others would argue with that conclusion though adding density to urban and suburban neighborhoods does tend to bring out NIMBY responses.

So perhaps we could see these drones or cars as concessions to what Americans want: more privacy in their residences, more space, and to find technological solutions to get around the effect these kinds of neighborhoods produce. As the article notes, having lots of flying and landing drones could lead to problems but this might be preferable to asking people to live in different kinds of places.

The “extreme architecture” of “a drone-proof city”

With the recent talk about drone use, here is an interesting thought exercise: how to best build a city that limits the reach of drones?

Kohn’s envisioned drone-proof community, which he calls “Shura City,” is a thought experiment, a provocation (shura, Arabic for consultation, is a word associated with group decision-making in the Islamic world). It’s a self-contained environment with elaborate architectural devices designed to thwart robotic predators overhead. Minarets, along with the wind-catching cooling towers called badgirs, would obstruct the flight path of the drones. A latticed roof, extending over the entire community, would create shade patterns to make visual target identification difficult. A fully climate-controlled environment would confuse heat-seeking detection systems. He has not included any anti-aircraft weapons in this scenario…

Kohn writes in his proposal that he envisions Shura City as a brick-and-mortar response to a 21st-century conundrum, a world in which war is ill-defined and combatants on both sides live in an extrajudicial limbo…

Kohn says that he thinks it is a duty for his generation to challenge the newly mechanized means of warfare that have become routine over the last 10 years. “If people are going to create new and exciting ways to kill people, I think there’s no harm in pushing the envelope of peace technology,” he says. Imagining Shura City is part of Kohn’s personal response to that challenge, a way to hack the machines of modern war.

“There is a deliberate impudence to the City,” he wrote to me. “Drones rely on data mining of individuals and tracking of individuals, kind of like Facebook. The City hides the individual in the embrace of the community, using human traits drones cannot understand as protection. The City subverts the aggressor.”

Peace architecture vs. war architecture. Cities with the ability to hide people vs. the ability of drones to find people. There are some interesting contrasts here. Many urban sociologists like to promote public spaces where people of all backgrounds and circumstances can share physical settings (see the example of The Cosmopolitan Canopy by Elijah Anderson). But what happens if the public spaces that perhaps mark democratic society are places citizens are afraid of being spotted from above? Can cities more closed to above still be open in the sense that we think of them?

While this particular example may be far-fetched, it wouldn’t surprise me if some cities around the cities attempt to limit the effectiveness of drones.