Workhorse Horsefly Workhorse Horsefly The Horsefly drone from Workhorse can travel at speeds up to 50 miles per hour and carry packages weighing 10 pounds. (Photo: Workhorse)

5 companies on the cutting edge of drone delivery

From fresh pizza to the perfect gift, the next order you place may arrive from above.

The days of ordering something on our smartphones and having it delivered via drone are much closer than we realize.

While consumer drones available today are all almost exclusively used for photography purposes, some tech firms around the world are leveraging the technology in an effort to transform the global delivery industry. Despite ever-changing regulatory hurdles, advancements in the drone industry in 2016 hint heavily at a future world where the road is no longer the only means of delivery.

Below are just a few companies pioneering drone delivery systems that could one day transform the airspace above us into personal superhighways.

Domino's Pizza

In the near future, ordering a pizza may include the option of delivery by drone. Domino’s Pizza Enterprises, an international franchiser of the Domino’s Pizza brand, recently concluded a successful first test of a drone pizza delivery service in New Zealand. The company partnered with drone delivery startup Flirtey in an effort to reach more rural customers and improve delivery times in congested rural environments.

“We’ve always said that it doesn’t make sense to have a two-ton machine delivering a two-kilogram order,” Domino’s Group CEO Don Meij said, referencing the old standard of pizza delivery by car. "The use of drones is the next stage of the company’s expansion into the artificial intelligence space and gives us the ability to learn and adopt new technologies in the business."

Barring any regulatory hurdles (New Zealand law currently allows unmanned aircraft for commercial operations), Domino's New Zealand expects to start making drone pizza deliveries by the end of this year. Should all go well, the company plans on expanding its service to other drone-friendly countries like Australia, Japan, The Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany.


Ukrainian Postal Service

The denizens of at least one city in the Ukraine later this year will have the option of having packages delivered via drone. The country's postal service, UkrPoshta, has partnered with Israeli drone maker Flytrex on the pilot program, enabling packages up to 6.6 pounds to be delivered over 14 miles away at speeds of 44 mph.

"Our customers expect efficiency in their deliveries – low costs, speedy delivery, no-hassle experiences," Ihor Tkachuk, acting director general of UkrPoshta, said in a statement. "We believe that drones will not only bring our customers the satisfaction of easy deliveries, but also the chance to fly into the future of postal services.”

An alliance with Flytrex is not surprising considering the tech firm's pioneering development of drone delivery technology. In fact, such partnerships with Israeli tech firms are likely to become commonplace around the world, with the country assuming a leadership role in drone development in much the same way it did for global desalination. As of today, over 40 startups in Israel are addressing to advance various sectors of the drone industry.

"The idea is to offer better services for a same or a lower rate," Flytrex CEO Yariv Bas, an alumnus of Tel Aviv University and an aeronautic engineer by trade, told Wired UK. "A drone costs a lot less than a delivery truck and operates with batteries instead of costly fuel. Maintenance is also much cheaper."


Amazon Prime Air

Once derided as nothing more than an elaborate joke when it was announced in 2013, Amazon Prime Air has quickly evolved into one of the most promising commercial drone delivery platforms.

The drones, able to deliver packages up to five pounds (a weight range that represents 80%-90% of all products that Amazon sells), are currently in development under teams based in the U.S., Israel and the U.K. Initial roll-out, depending on a country's regulatory rules, would likely focus on medium-density neighborhoods where a drone could drop off a package on a lawn. Future advancements hint at Amazon navigating more tricky urban environments with rooftop lockers, designated local drone landing sites, or launches from nearby delivery vehicles.

According to Israeli Amir Navot, the principal research scientist for Prime Air, the goal is to make drone deliveries as safe as 19th-century deliveries.

"We want drones to be more like horses and less like cars," Gur Kimchi, vice president of Prime Air, related his colleague as saying. "If you’re sitting in a car and driving toward a wall, the car will hit the wall. If you are on a horse and you ride toward the wall, it will stop on its own. We want to make drones independently safe, like the horse."


Mercedes

Luxury German automaker Mercedes-Benz recently announced a partnership with Silicon Valley drone startup Matternet to develop an integrated van/drone delivery system. Dubbed the "Vision Van," this kind of last-mile delivery system would employ two drones capable of delivering packages up to five pounds within a radius of six miles.

"With the Vision Van we are integrating the intelligence of a state-of-the-art logistics depot into a van," German executive Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz vans, said in a statement. "We estimate that this vehicle would enable an increase in productivity of up to 50 percent in last-mile delivery services."

Matternet, which already has a drone delivery pilot service operating in Switzerland, has previous experience delivering medical supplies and specimens in countries like Haiti, Bhutan, the Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea. Both Matternet and Mercedes envision their concept delivery system working hand-in-hand with other services like Amazon Prime Air.

"The other scenario is that you as the customer go on [something like the] Amazon website, see the option to have something delivered in an hour, and the system knows a Mercedez Benz van is nearby," Andreas Raptopoulous, the Greek founder and CEO of Matternet, told Business Insider. "The drone could depart from the Amazon delivery center, go to a van, and the driver hands the package off to you. This doesn't require any infrastructure."


Workhorse

Workhorse, a U.S. firm that creates electric delivery vehicles for companies like UPS and FedEx, is one of the few companies in the U.S. aiming to start drone deliveries within the next 12 months. The company's Horsefly drone, currently in the final stages of development, can travel at speeds up to 50 mph, carry a 10-pound package, and fly for 30 minutes. To pass U.S. regulatory rules, the drones must stay within line-of-sight, a restriction the company has solved by mating the technology with its electric delivery trucks.

"Say you have five deliveries to the right, and one delivery a mile to the left," Workhorse CEO Steve Burns told Marketplace. "Give the one delivery to the left of the bird, go on and do your five, and it'll catch up with you."

Workhorse says that its drones will fly in rain and snow but, not surprisingly, do not handle high wind conditions particularly well. In an interview with Trucks.com, Burns says that re-docking with a truck on a very windy day poses the biggest challenge to its drone delivery system. “Weather comes into play in any aircraft,” he added.

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