The Industry

Can You Get Food and Groceries Delivered by Drone Yet?

Low-angle shot of a drone flying between tall buildings toward a balcony. There is a rose attached to the drone.
A drone in Haret Sakher, Lebanon, delivers a rose on March 21. Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

Drone delivery is one of the business ideas that suddenly makes a lot more sense in the age of the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean you can get pizza airlifted to your home yet. In a few limited ways, operators are stepping in to help businesses limit human-to-human contact for deliveries. Bloomberg reported recently that Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery service, is seeing a big uptick in orders in the Christiansburg, Virginia, pilot program that it’s been running since the fall. Wing works with FedEx and Walgreens to deliver household essentials and has also added a local bakery and coffee shop to expand offerings during the pandemic. The delivery service claims that the volume of deliveries has doubled amid the crisis, and Christiansburg’s Mockingbird Cafe and Bakery reports that it’s sold 50 percent more pastries thanks to the deliveries. The drones can complete deliveries within minutes, though they’re limited in how much they can carry per order. Here’s a look at one Wing drop-off:

This same phenomenon is playing out in cities around the world that are hosting drone pilot programs. Wing’s trials in Canberra, Australia, and Helsinki, Finland, have also seen an increase in business. The Chinese e-commerce giant also stepped up its drone program for routine last-mile grocery and consumer product deliveries to the country’s rural villages and semi-isolated islands.

Other startups are trying to work with regulators to fast-track the launch of their services. After setting up shop in Rwanda in 2016, the medical drone delivery company Zipline says it is now working with U.S. regulators to speed up the approval process so it can help expedite supply chains in the country. The drone company Manna Aero, which began fulfilling takeout orders in Dublin at the end of March, also got permission from Ireland’s aviation authorities for a trial to deliver prescription medications to elderly and immunocompromised people in early April. And the Ontario provincial government classified Drone Delivery Canada as an “essential workplace,” allowing the company to continue normal business operations and transport pharmaceutical supplies and blood samples for remote communities, particularly Aboriginal ones.

None of this means that drones are about to take the place of Instacart and DoorDash workers. As Inverse reports, regulations in the U.S. aren’t likely to loosen quickly or dramatically enough to allow drones to fill the sky and solve a lot of the transportation bottlenecks caused by the coronavirus in the near future. One of the toughest restrictions to get a waiver for is visual line of sight, which dictates that a firm’s drone operator must be able to see the aircraft in person at all times, thus limiting the distance that it can travel. It’s possible that the coronavirus will convince the Federal Aviation Administration, which usually rejects 99 percent of applications, to eventually grant more Beyond Visual Line of Sight approvals in the long run. (Wing won approval in 2019.) In April, the FAA granted exemptions to its commercial drone prohibitions to 30 companies, including Amazon, which is still in the research and development phase for its Prime Air service.

While contactless deliveries are a relatively benevolent application of drone technology, governments and law enforcement are also using them for less innocuous purposes. China was the first country to use drones with loudspeakers to scold pedestrians for failing to abide by public health guidelines and monitor temperature checks during traffic stops. European countries like France and Spain soon followed suit. Now cities throughout the U.S. are similarly cajoling citizens with drone patrols. Police departments in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Daytona Beach, Florida, have been flying drones that blast messages from local officials ordering people to abide by social distancing directives. The Elizabeth drones are additionally threatening, blasting warnings like “Summonses HAVE AND WILL CONTINUE to be issued to those found in violation. Fines are up to $1000. You have been advised.”