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Drone deliveries depend on the suburbs, not cities, to succeed

Don’t expect drone delivery to come to big cities anytime soon. If you live in a suburb, though, you’re in luck.

Drone delivery faces almost the opposite challenge that other consumer tech like Uber, bike sharing programs and food delivery face. Those programs are contingent upon a critical mass of people contained in a small area in order to be economically and operationally viable.

But for drone delivery, it’s the opposite. In cities, drones have to navigate around complicated landscapes of buildings and trees. There are more people being flown over, thus more inherent danger. There are fewer backyards or open spaces for drones to land in.

Suburbs are a dream destination for drone delivery, as drones have big yards to land in, and they can fly lower to the ground without the danger of buildings in the way.

When Amazon in 2016 made its first delivery to a customer in the U.K., that customer didn’t live in a bustling city like London. Instead, the drone (carrying a Fire TV and a bag of popcorn) flew 13 minutes and about two miles from an Amazon warehouse to a landing pad placed in a customer’s yard in the English countryside.

An early version of Amazon Prime Air’s drone prototype

“Population density is lower, so we can fly above open areas,” said Yariv Bash, CEO of drone delivery startup Flytrex. “There are no skyscrapers causing wind gusts.”

There’s also a better use-case for drones in suburbs vs. cities. In a city, you likely are only a mile from the nearest Chipotle. It’s easier for a bike courier to bring your burrito a mile on their bike, than to coordinate a drone flight.

But in suburbs, you might be 15 miles from your nearest Chipotle. It’s going to take a lot of effort to bring you your queso dip via bike, and it might not even be economical for a car to drive out to your suburb to deliver such a low-value item (the cost of the delivery might actually cost more than the food itself).

“There currently is no on-demand service for major food delivery services in the suburbs,” Bash said. “Postmates, Uber Eats — it’s not profitable for them to operate in the suburbs.”

A study commissioned by Google’s Project Wing conducted by advisory firm AlphaBeta found that drone deliveries in Canberra alone (where Google has tested) could reduce delivery costs for businesses by about $9 million annually.

And finally, there’s the issue of competition. Traditional delivery companies like Postmates and Uber Eats have found success in major cities. Bash doesn’t want to compete with them.

But since they’re not operating in the suburbs, Bash has a better shot there.

“Most of the US lives in suburbs,” he said. “Out there, there’s no competition. Drone delivery is going to start in the suburbs.”

Google is also launching a full-fledged drone delivery program this year — also in the suburbs. That service is expected to operate in Blacksburg, Virginia by the end of the year, making Southwest Virginia the first place in the U.S. with commercial drone deliveries.

That said, drones in the countryside and suburbs are not without their challenges.

Julia Napier, co-founder of Friends of the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke, told the New York Times that Amazon’s drone deliveries in the English countryside pose a potential threat to local wildlife and the wider countryside (Amazon denies those claims). There’s also the concern that loud drones flying over homes could disrupt the peace of the country. Another group, called Bonython Against Drones, has taken issue with the Project Wing drones flying in their suburb outside of Canberra, Australia.

“There have been numerous sightings and recorded instances of bird aggressively attacking drones in Bonython…in efforts to try to chase the drones, dogs are injuring themselves and backyard gardens are being destroyed….(and) neighbors are complaining because of the dogs barking continually on flight days,” according to a post on that group’s website.

For its part, Google developed quieter drones in an attempt to quell some of the anti-drone discord.

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