Coffee delivery by drone for $3? It's coming

Amazon gets all the headlines, but drone delivery might work on a smaller scale.

Look, up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a flying cappuccino!

A new UAV service wants to give local vendors, such as restaurants, minimarts, and coffee shops, the ability to deliver products locally by drone. The deliveries will cost $3 each and the drones will travel to doorsteps up to six miles from participating vendor locations.

"Drones-as-a-service" is booming, with businesses springing up to lease UAV hardware, software, and sensing technology to industries that require routine inspection and mapping, such as the energy sector. Drone deliveries are the logical next step, and a company called Uvionix is testing a compelling model.

The company wants to provide fleets of its nSKY drones to participating restaurants and stores. When customers order items from those establishments, employees load the deliverables and send the drone out for an autonomous run. The nSKY drones have protected propeller blades and a compact footprint to make them safe to fly. Every UAV will come with an emergency parachute, just in case.

A delivery drone from Uvionix

Uvionix's nSKY delivery drone.

All of this is dependent on the FAA giving the green light to urban drone delivery, which is likely to happen at some point, though no one quite knows when. The agency has allowed a few early tests, and NASA is currently working on a UAV air traffic control system in partnership with the FAA. The system is considered a necessary tool for the safe use of drones in dense city environments. The FAA recently received recommendations from a taskforce on the use of lightweight micro UAV, and representatives from the agency have stated that rules for commercial UAV use could be in place by this summer, potentially clearing the way for drone delivery.

To deploy the drones, employees simply take them outside and press a button on a smartphone. The drones have quick-swap batteries and are stored in specially designed space-saving charging racks. Uvionix collects a fee for the deliveries, and the value-add for the vendor is being able to reach customers who are--ahem ...--too lazy to drag their butts to the store.

The storage rack for the Uvionix nSKY

The storage/charging rack for Uvionix's nSKY drones.

Of course there are lots of pitfalls beyond regulation. The first drone delivery that goes awry and causes injury or significant property damage will spark controversy and backlash. Management of the nSKY fleet will fall to Uvionix, and the autonomous flight of the aircraft will monitored by a trained pilot to help ensure safety during all takeoff and landing operations.

And what's clear is that--ridiculous though this idea seemed when we all started hearing about it a couple years ago--the public is ready for drone delivery. A poll by eDigitalResearch found that one in three e-commerce users would be open to receiving packages by drone. Like any new technology, it will likely gain acceptance as people see it in action.

The Uvionix nSKY service is still under development but could be available in Q2 of 2017.

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