Robotics: Cue the Pizza Drones?

Drones and robots are going to solve all of our delivery woes!

Well…. not so fast. It was definitely fun to see Domino’s deliver its first pizza by autonomous drone in New Zealand a bit over a year ago. But the truth is we’re not going to see fleets of airborne delivery bots anytime soon, no matter how much Domino’s, Amazon, or UPS invest in drone technology (plus the critical AI needed to make the devices smarter than flying Tinkertoys).

First, let’s look at what was behind the scenes of that first pizza delivery. As Business Insider put it, “A team of drone experts and a pilot autonomously controlled Flirtey’s DRU Drone through GPS navigation to drop off the pizzas.” Even if it were a small team of drone experts, say three at most, that still requires four people to deliver a pizza. A great stunt. Something to spark the imagination. But not a realistic business model for getting hot pizza to the masses any time soon.

Part of the hold-up is FAA regulations protecting the public (and our collective airspace) from errant pies or inept drone operators, not to mention high-tech electronics falling out of the sky. At the moment there is a “line-of-sight” rule, generally requiring all drones to be directly visible to their operators. So for now, drone flight is all pretty manual and pretty complicated. The other part of the hold-up is technical. As in, there’s work to be done before drones are safe and reliable enough to deliver pizzas (or other packages, for that matter) in the real world. Once these barriers are resolved, we expect to see rapid adoption.

The field of robotics is actually fascinating right now. On the one hand, there’s a bunch of tech that’s exciting to watch but not quite ready for Prime Time. (Here’s where drone pizza delivery fits in.) And on the other hand, there’s old technology that’s been in widespread use since the ’80s. Massive industrial robots that perform repetitive tasks with perfect precision in automotive factories, for example. But those robots are extremely expensive, not adaptive, and they must be precisely programmed to perform incredibly specific tasks.

So, what’s in the middle? Are modern robots being deployed in the real world? Of course, there’s the famous example of the 45,000-strong workforce of Kiva robots powering Amazon’s warehouses around the world. And some retailers are currently conducting trials in big box stores. Lowes, for example, which is experimenting with a “Lowebot” to help people find products. Or Target, where a Simbe Robotics model called Tally monitors the stock on shelves, freeing up sales associates to focus on clients.

Plus watch out for anyone planning mischief at a mall or stadium parking lot. Robots are starting to supplement security guards to identify suspicious activity in public parks, at sporting events, and in enormous indoor shopping venues.

As it happens, the drone world is also an area of exciting innovation in robotics, despite the stunt with the pizza boxes. Already, advanced drones fitted with navigation systems, sensors, and AI are able to inspect thousands of miles of track for railroad companies; assess the safety of offshore oil rigs; fly over wind turbines to check for maintenance issues; and examine miles of overhead power lines searching for damage. When equipped with computer vision, navigation, and other AI capabilities, autonomous drones are cheaper, safer, and faster than humans conducting the same kind of industrial inspections.

Although this technology is not mainstream at the moment, it is developing rapidly and more cheaply than ever before. Where drones once cost millions and were affordable only to military forces and the like, today they are available for hundreds (at most thousands) of dollars. Plus, open source platforms that offer AI and other advanced functionality are cheaper and more widely available than ever before.

So while it’s not likely for your pizza to drop out of the sky thanks to drones and robots anytime soon, there are real applications for drones and robots at industrial scale that can transform your business. Particularly when paired with advanced sensors, AI, cloud computing, and IoT technology.

Wonder if drones or robots could advance your enterprise? At Valence we help our clients separate fact from fiction and incorporate leading-edge technology that drives real results. We’d love to show you the way. Interested? Contact us, and we’ll help you get started!