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Interview: DelivAir imagines a future where drones drop deliveries wherever you are

Drone Racing

Drone delivery of packages and smallish goods is still nowhere near pervasive — or even a common sight — but some companies are already trying to figure out how to make it a more sophisticated thing than a drone simply flying to your house and gently setting down a parcel on your doorstep.

That includes companies like Cambridge Consultants, a product development and tech consulting firm with laboratories in the U.K. and in Boston. It’s come up with a drone delivery concept it calls DelivAir, built around the idea of a drone delivering a package into the hands of its recipient, no matter their location.

The thinking around drone delivery so far has tended to imagine them as one more piece of the last-mile puzzle — a delivery channel that finishes the package’s journey, taking it all the way to your front door. But Nathan Wrench, the head of the industrial and energy business at Cambridge Consultants, thinks drone delivery especially represents a chance to think about package delivery as something more like a telephone call. As in, it’s great to be able to talk to anyone you need via phone at home, but some people still need to reach you when you’re not at home, perhaps at work. The call needs to be tied to you, in other words, not to your address.

“Something like 40 percent of the cost of distribution comes down to that last mile,” Wrench says, referring to everything from employee wages to the cost of gas and trucks that deliver packages to your door. “It must be possible to do better than that.”

Which is why the patent-pending DelivAir system encompasses a two-stage routing process. Instead of a physical address being the focal point, the delivery starts by using GPS to navigate to a smartphone location. Secure location updates are periodically requested in-flight until the delivery gets within visual range.

Then the drone switches to precision optical tracking and a 3D imaging and ranging system to find and authenticate the recipient.

When the drone arrives, the recipient points their smartphone to flash in the sky with a coded pattern, which verifies to the drone that they’re the right person to leave the package with. The drone gets into position directly above the flashing light while keeping at a safe height above.

The package is then lowered down into the recipient’s hands, using a stabilising winch to keep it steady. The recipient removes the package, and the drone then returns to its base.

Cambridge Consultants unveiled its concept system in recent days and immediately pointed to its practical application — real-world use cases that could include delivering something like a bike pump to a stranded cyclist or essential supplies during disasters and medical emergencies.

Wrench told BGR his firm — which is working on several other drone projects like this — got motivated to do more in this space partly by seeing how e-commerce and other modern needs are driving expectations toward an “endless shortening of response times” for things like package delivery.

In a similar vein, Google parent Alphabet’s drone delivery effort Project Wing has spent this fall pursuing tests in rural areas that focus on how to make deliveries directly to people’s yards. Project Wing co-lead James Ryan Burgess wrote in a Medium post on October 16th that two Australian merchants have joined Project Wing’s tests — the Mexican food chain Guzman y Gomez and pharmacy chain Chemist Warehouse.

The effort is focused on the same kind of thing DelivAir was conceived to help address — hyper-targeted delivery that gets people the things they need when they need them.

For the Project Wing test with those two merchants, testers will buy items using the Project Wing app on their smartphones. Drones will be dispatched to pick up the order from the merchants’ loading sites and then deliver the items to testers.

“To operate an effective drone delivery system, Project Wing must be able to pick up packages from anyone, in almost any location,” Burgess writes. “This presents an interesting design challenge: Our technology must be intuitive and easy to use, so packages can be loaded and received without any specialized infrastructure and by people without specialized experience.”

Wrench thinks something urgent like medical uses will especially press development of drone delivery concepts – and the kind of super-specific targeting the DelivAir concept focuses on — forward. Even so, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t feel to him nearer than three years away or so — the focus on person-specific drone delivery, that is.

Nevertheless, he adds: “Ultra-precision is the future of drone delivery, and the opportunities are almost limitless. The mobile phone changed the way we make calls, from a location to an individual. We believe this technology has the potential to re-shape e-commerce in the same way, making deliveries to a person a practical proposition, no matter where they are.”

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Andy Meek is a reporter who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming. Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.