For the next few days, Alibaba’s major online marketplace Taobao will be delivering small packages of ginger tea to 450 paying customers in Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai, by drone. What makes this different than other drone delivery trials we’ve seen before is that supposedly there will be real customers in the loop on this one.
Alibaba released a video showing how things will supposedly work from the moment a user orders an item and a drone is loaded and sent out to the moment when the item is delivered:
Is it a cool video? Yes. But it’s a stunt. Drone delivery is certainly an appealing concept, but videos like this ignore so many safety, legal, and technical considerations that they are just laughable—though some may say they cross the line between acceptable PR and misleading PR.
The BBC published an article on the Alibaba drone delivery trial, along with commentary from an expert that echoes everything that everyone who knows anything about drones has been saying ever since Amazon and Google came up with this stuff:
One expert said it would be wrong to dismiss [this] as a PR stunt, even if drone-based deliveries were still years away from becoming the norm.
“It's well established that drones can be flown autonomously above the tree-line—but below it, there are still a lot of issues,” said Ravi Vaidyanathan, a robotics lecturer at Imperial College London.
“They will need to get around moving obstacles like children and pets when they come to land below the roof of your house. And the kind of co-ordination it would take to get airspace reserved for drone flights is also a big issue too.
“I don’t think these problems are insurmountable, but the safety considerations must be addressed, and obstacle-free take-off and landing zones may need to be considered in the near term.”
A video released by Alibaba indicates it will use quadcopter drones that fly far beyond the sightlines of their operators, travelling over roads, rivers and buildings before landing in open spaces close to apartment blocks.
However, the company has not provided technical details abut how it intends to achieve this.
We agree with Vaidyanathan’s observations, except that “it would be wrong to dismiss [this] as a PR stunt,” especially with that last sentence: “the company has not provided technical details abut how it intends to achieve this.”
I mean, that last sentence is the whole thing about drone delivery, isn’t it? It’s easy to make a video. Doing it for real is, for the moment, extremely difficult (if not impossible) for a whole bunch of reasons that we’ve belabored manytimes before, most of which focus on the last hundred meters or so.
After a bit more digging and some sketchy Google translation, I found this page, which seems to suggest that for these 450 deliveries, “staff will preset destinations and routes, [and] the UAV [will] automatically deliver.” To me, that suggests that what’s really going on here is that Alibaba employees will carefully create flight plans with GPS waypoints and altitudes so that the drones fly mostly over open spaces and don’t hit buildings, power lines, bridges, antennas, cell towers, trees, or other things on their path.
Anyway, I hate to be such a continual curmugeon about this, but what bugs me about these stunts (sorry BBC, they’re totally stunts) is that it’s an extraordinarily inaccurate representation of what’s realistic for drones in the near term. Stunts are fine, except all of these videos present themselves as if drone delivery is something that’s ready for consumer deployment. Would it be crazy to suggest that this feeds into the potential for abuse of consumer drones, when consumers see big companies going, “oh, yeah, we can totally fly our big cargo drones through your neighborhood to your doorstep, it’s safe, we got this, don’t worry about it!”
It’s certainly possible that over the next few days, we’ll see some video showing the entire end-to-end process, with happy customers receiving packages of tea on their doorsteps. I doubt we will, but I’m looking forward to being surprised.