Rapid advances in drone technology have kicked off a race among companies to see who can be the first to deliver goods by air.

On August 25, Domino’s tested its very first pizza delivery in Auckland, New Zealand. Watched by the nation’s Civil Aviation Authority and Transport Minister, the pizza was successfully delivered – still hot.

The company is now confident that it can begin drone deliveries to its customers later this year.

Amazon and Google have been testing out drone deliveries for some time, but are both much further away from implementing them.

Amazon Prime Air, which aims to deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drone, recently signed a partnership with the UK government to trial new methods of testing its delivery system.

Google is testing its own drone technology in rural California, and says it is working with experts, regulators and the broader aviation community to develop a common approach to managing low-altitude airspace, with a view to launching in 2017.

Drone offer the potential for faster and cheaper deliveries, while reducing congestion from the roads and cutting CO2 emissions.

Taking off? The size of the global drone market, according to Tractica
Taking off? The size of the global drone market, according to Tractica
Image: Tractica

Drones working for the greater good

Far beyond the delivery of consumer goods, drones could soon be working for the greater good. Using unmanned drones to deliver vaccines in low- and middle-income countries may save money and improve vaccination rates, new research led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center suggests.

Drones are able to deliver vaccines more quickly and cheaply than land-based methods limited by road conditions and the need for costly fuel and maintenance, the researchers note in their study, published June 20 in the journal Vaccine.

It’s already happening. US-based company Zipline currently delivers medical supplies in remote locations – saving lives in the process.

Obstacles remain

Clearly, filling the sky with drones presents a number of safety risks, particularly in areas close to airports or above dense housing. Another concern is the risk to privacy.

Most small drones accidents are caused by technical faults rather than human error, according to a the first study to look at the causes of civil drone accidents.

The study showed technical problems were the cause of 64% of the incidents, which occurred between 2006 and 2016. In most cases, broken communications links between the pilot and the drones were the cause of the incident, leading the researchers to call for the introduction of commercial aircraft-type regulations to govern the communications systems.

Regulations are already making widespread drone delivery impractical.

Many countries have tight civil aviation rules. In the US, for instance, drones are only cleared for take-off in a very limited set of circumstances, and have to be within sight of the operator at all times.

As a result, the US e-commerce giant recently struck a partnership with the UK government to test its drone delivery technology in rural and suburban areas in Britain.

New Zealand’s laws, where Domino’s had its successful flight, are also more lenient. New aviation rules came into force on August 1 2015 to regulate and enable the use of UAVs for recreational and commercial purposes in New Zealand.

Deliveries on the ground

One way round the challenge is to use robots on the ground instead. Skype co-founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla have launched Starship Technologies, a company that produces self-driving delivery robots.

Capable of carrying the equivalent of two grocery bags, the robots can complete local deliveries in between five and 30 minutes from a local hub or retail outlet, for 10 to 15 times less than the cost of current last-mile delivery alternatives.

The company has recently partnered with national mail carrier Swiss Post to trial parcel deliveries, which includes the delivery of medicines.

It follows on the heels of a partnership with Just Eat, the London-based food delivery company. Trials remain incident-free and show that, unsurprisingly, such technology is cheaper than paying people to make deliveries.

Increasing automation is just one strand of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is expected to cause a net loss of five million jobs by 2020, according to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs report.