Delivery Drones Cheer Shoppers, Annoy Neighbors, Scare Dogs

Delivery Drones Cheer Shoppers, Annoy Neighbors, Scare Dogs

In one of the world’s most advanced drone-delivery tests, sunscreen arrives in minutes—as do complaints

By Mike Cherney Dec. 26, 2018 11:59 a.m. ET

CANBERRA, Australia—Robyn McIntyre, who lives on the outskirts of Australia’s capital, was in her family room a few months ago when she thought she heard a “chain saw gone ballistic.”

It was actually a drone on its way to deliver a burrito or coffee as part of a test from Wing, which like Google is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. One recent day, she said delivery drones flew over her house about 10 times in 2½ hours, making it difficult to focus on working or reading the newspaper.

“There’s one!” said Ms. McIntyre, 64 years old, drinking tea in her living room on a recent Saturday morning. “Oh no, it’s a blowfly. See there, it’s gotten into my head. Every time I hear a high-pitched noise, I think it’s a drone.”

Alphabet's Project Wing is delivering hot coffee and food, hardware supplies and drugstore items via drone near Australia’s capital. Some residents say it’s the future, while others want the drones to shut up.
Drones could someday revolutionize e-commerce by cutting delivery times, reducing energy use and lowering costs. For now, they are dividing neighbors in the suburban neighborhood of Bonython, where one of the world’s most advanced drone-delivery tests has taken flight.

Tech companies are tinkering with drone deliveries all over the world. Wing is a step ahead of some by routinely bringing everyday items to customers in an entire neighborhood. Residents can use a smartphone app to order food, hardware supplies and over-the-counter medications from half a dozen retailers. Next year, Wing hopes to move the trial to another part of Canberra and plans to begin a similar test in Finland.

Some residents don’t use their yards as much because of the noise. Others say they’ve seen magpies, famous for swooping at pedestrians and cyclists in the spring, do the same to drones. At a local dog club, some members are avoiding an area near where the drones take off because dogs can get nervous, says the club president. For some residents, it’s a small-scale version of the misery heaped on travelers at London’s Gatwick airport, whose holiday plans were ruined by mystery drone incursions.

Irene Clarke, who is Ms. McIntyre’s neighbor, gets up to 10 deliveries a day. After she discovered that her sunscreen was out of date, she ordered a replacement via drone so she could quickly lather up her three young grandchildren. It arrived within seven minutes.

Ms. Clarke, 64, calculates it would have taken 25 minutes to get the children in the car and make the round trip to the shopping center. Some people may not like the drone service “because they’re not using it,” said Ms. Clarke, adding that none of her neighbors have asked her to stop getting deliveries.

The convenience isn’t swaying members of Bonython Against Drones, a group of residents “united against noisy, intrusive, unnecessary drones,” according to its Facebook page. The organizers recently submitted a petition to the local legislative assembly. Politicians voted to launch an inquiry into drone deliveries and a committee will produce a report on the trial’s environmental and economic impacts.

“It is a suburb surrounded by bush,” said Nev Sheather, 68, who opposes the trial. “It is normally a very peaceful, quiet place. We have kangaroos hopping literally in the street.”

Laura Edwards, 32, hasn’t used the drone service, but she returned home after a weekend away to find two hot chocolates in front of her house, still in the aerodynamically shaped box that Wing uses for delivery. One had mostly leaked out, requiring her husband to hose down the driveway.

“I just felt angry, because I thought, ‘Really? We have to clean this up,’ ” said Ms. Edwards, who posted about the incident on social media but didn’t file a formal complaint. An investigation by Wing later determined the hot chocolates had been left at the wrong house because a customer selected the incorrect address.

Wing, which has been testing drones in Australia since 2014, said it hopes to improve the service. It is developing a quieter drone. It modified flight paths so the drones, equipped with 12 rotors to hover and two propellers, don’t fly over the same houses all the time. And it slowed down the drones, which have a top speed of roughly 78 miles an hour.

One analysis from the Rand Corp., using data from Minneapolis, found that shifting small-package deliveries near the city center to drones from trucks would reduce energy use by 6%. A Wing-commissioned study from advisory firm AlphaBeta determined that drone deliveries in Canberra alone could reduce delivery costs for businesses by about $9 million annually.

During a delivery, a drone flies autonomously using GPS and a low-resolution camera to its destination. Once there, it hovers roughly 25 feet in the air and lowers a package to the ground that unhooks automatically. Orders are prepared in modified shipping containers in a field near the neighborhood. Wing currently isn’t charging for deliveries.

No accidents involving the drones have been reported, according to Australia’s aviation-safety regulator, which approved the trial.

The drones, which have a wingspan of 3½ feet, are able to land themselves if a possible problem is detected. Out of about 2,000 flights to customers, there have been five such landings. One of those instances involved an ill-placed portable basketball hoop. Another landing occurred in high wind. One drone landed on a sidewalk because of a “flaw in the package construction.”

Rachel Thackray, 29, once ordered lunch for herself, her parents and three friends. Two drones carrying Mexican fare soon arrived. Then the wind picked up and a third drone that was supposed to carry Ms. Thackray’s chicken burrito, with extra jalapeño, was canceled.

Usually, “you place your order and then in no time it’s there,” said Ms. Thackray. “We stand out the front excitedly waiting for it.” Her missing burrito was eventually delivered by car.

Warwick Brooker, 72, who said he served in Vietnam with the Australian military, still finds the sound of the drones to be irritating. But he isn’t getting panic attacks like he did when they first started.

“If flying burritos bring joy to others, I can live with that,” he said.


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