Among the projected uses for drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), a key one is the delivery of items such as food and goods purchased online. Food-tech platform Zomato took a step in that direction earlier this month, when it tested a drone for delivery of food items. Prevalent norms in India, however, prohibit payload carriage on UAVs.
What are the rules that prohibit delivery via drones?
The guidelines were declared by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in August last year after two years of deliberations. Before working on these rules, the DGCA had put a blanket ban on drone operations following a Mumbai-based pizza chain using one for food delivery in 2014. Besides restricting payload carriage, the rules also prohibit drone operations outside the visual line of sight.
While announcing the rules last year, the government had said these will be evolved with time as and when companies exhibit newer technologies. Last month, the DGCA invited expressions of interest for experiments with UAVs flying beyond the visual line of sight. Zomato has now said it is forming a consortium for such operations.
What technology did Zomato use?
It flew a hybrid drone with fixed wings as well as rotors. Fixed wings allow forward motion like an aeroplane while rotors allow vertical takeoff and landing. Developed by TechEagle Innovations, which was acquired by Zomato last year, the drone covered 5 km in about 10 minutes with a peak speed of 80 km per hour, and carrying a payload of 5kg.
Inbuilt sensors and a computer on board allow the drone to sense and avoid static and dynamic objects, Zomato said. Although fully automated, each drone was currently being tested with remote pilot supervision. Zomato said that over time, as it collects more data, it might do away with pilot supervision.
Why drones for food delivery?
Saving time is the main objective; a motorcycle delivery from Zomato takes an average 30.5 minutes. “The only possible way to reduce the average 30.5 minutes to 15 minutes is to take the aerial route – roads are not efficient for very fast delivery. We have been working towards building sustainable and safe delivery technology and with our first successful test, food delivery by drones is no longer just a pipe dream. While regulatory hurdles are not trivial, and the government’s concerns need to be looked at from various (valid) points of view, the tech is ready to fly and I am confident that drone delivery will be commonplace sooner rather than later,” said Deepinder Goyal, founder & CEO, Zomato.
The company noted that with rapid urbanisation, using drones for delivery could help reduce unnecessary traffic on the roads. It proposed that in the first such deliveries, drones will pick up the food package from a restaurant hub (a dispatch station around a cluster of restaurants), drop it at a customer hub (a landing station close to dense residential or office communities) and come back using a mix of appropriate flight modes.
Are other companies working on drone-based delivery technology?
Food platforms and e-commerce companies are said to be the earliest adopters of such technology. Globally, Amazon expects to begin delivery of items using drones in the coming months at some locations. UberEats, the ride-sharing company’s food delivery platform, also plans to begin delivery with remotely piloted aircraft.