A patent granted to Google sheds some light on how drones will deliver packages to homes and businesses.
Project Wing is Google's initiative aimed at making deliveries via autonomous vehicles. Previously it has said it aims to be making commercial deliveries by 2017. And while a number of companies are already working on drone deliveries, the patent, 'Automatic package delivery to a delivery receptacle', granted yesterday, notes that an autonomous aerial vehicle may not, on its own, be enough to make such a system work.
"Unmanned, aerial delivery devices may be problematic for delivery to users" it said, noting: "For example, an aerial delivery device that is powered by a rotor or an impeller may be dangerous to pets, overhead powerlines, ceiling fans or other features."
A drone may also find it hard to spot a safe place to leave a package or to understand detailed delivery instructions, the patent said, while "conventional aerial delivery device methods do not allow for safe, secure delivery of packages to delivery locations".
Instead, the patent outlines a system where the delivery drone is also in contact with a 'delivery device': the patent shows a box on wheels with infrared emitters.
The idea is that the delivery device is told to expect a package and will drive to the agreed pickup location - perhaps the street outside a home, to wait for the drone to arrive. When the drone is due to arrive the delivery device switches on its IR beacons, which the drone detects and uses to find its way to the delivery device, where it drops off its package.
The 'delivery device' then transports the package to a secure location like a garage, and tells the owner that the package has arrived.
There are plenty of potential savings to be made by retailers and distributors if they can get autonomous deliveries right: the patent notes that the two largest commercial delivery services operate 100,000 vehicles between them for "last mile" delivery to homes and business "each of which requires a human operator" while the growth of online shopping will increase the demand for deliveries, "hence the need for capacity and efficiency in the last mile."