HomeDrone delivery is already here — and it works

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By SALLY FRENCH

On Sunday, hours before Cyber Monday, Amazon.com Inc. published a video starring TV host Jeremy Clarkson purporting to be from “the not-too-distant future” that showed how its drones could deliver a child’s soccer shoe within 30 minutes. “In time, there will be a whole family of Amazon drones,” Clarkson intoned.

When companies such as Amazon AMZN, -1.26%   and Alphabet Inc.’sGOOG, -1.02% GOOGL, -1.18%  Google X unit talk about drone delivery as the next iteration of consumer retail technology, the response is sometimes a combination of incredulity and skepticism. But it’s already happening in some parts of the world — and there’s nothing magical about it.

Menlo Park, Calif.-based startup Matternet has been running drone deliveries of medical supplies and specimens in countries around the world, including Switzerland, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, since it was founded in 2011.Other companies are pursuing drone delivery, although Matternet may be furthest along in building a business around it.

“The technology is here,” said Oliver Evans, Matternet’s head of global business development, who likens skepticism over drone delivery to the quizzical responses to the first motor cars.Drones don’t need drivers, and they don’t get caught in traffic.“It’s much more cost-, energy- and time-efficient to send [a blood sample] via drone, rather than send it in a two-ton car down the highway with a person inside to bring it to a different lab for testing,” said Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet.

The company believes drones could play an important role in disaster relief, safely delivering drugs, bandages and other supplies to hazardous areas.Here’s a step-by-step look at how Matternet’s drone delivery process works — and how that might translate to the shipping of your own packages in a not-too-distant future.

1. Point of departure

A doctor needs to send a blood sample to a lab across the city for testing. Samples would be packed up and taken to a landing pad, possibly on the roof or courtyard of a hospital. Matternet’s landing pads need only a small yard or rooftop of clearance to take off.

Matternet’s drones can hold up to one kilogram (2.2 pounds) and transport items about 10 miles, traveling up to 40 mph, which is about standard for current drone technology. Including lift off and landing, a 10-mile journey should take about 18 minutes.

For companies like Amazon or Google X, that means the delivery starting point, whether a warehouse or store, must be relatively close to delivery locations. Since Matternet’s drones land for each delivery (unlike drones that drop deliveries), the battery could be replaced after each delivery to increase flight time.

Sally French/MarketWatch

2. Powering up the drone

After a package is attached to a drone, it’s time to power up the drone and connect to the delivery company’s network. The Matternet smartphone app allows senders to choose from a list of possible destinations.Matternet’s drones can be shut down remotely in case of theft. And if the vehicle fails, a parachute will deploy.The drones will only fly to another Matternet sensor-equipped landing pad, so they won’t end up in unapproved spots.

3. The route is generated automatically

Once you’ve selected a destination for your package, the drone automatically generates a route based on four kinds of data:

  • Terrain: Drones can account for hills, trees and buildings
  • Airspace: The drone won’t fly near airports or other restricted airspace, such as the White House
  • Population density: Drones avoid schools or public squares
  • Weather: Drones won’t take off under certain conditions

The app takes about 30 seconds to generate a route.

4. Takeoff!

A tap of the send button, and the drone is off. Unlike the remote-controlled drones you may see for sale on Amazon, delivery drones take off and fly without any remote controller.Matternet’s routes generally try to fly in as straight a line as possible, but will take indirect routes to avoid highly populated areas or no-fly zones like airports.

5. Delivery

In our example, the specimen arrives at the lab across town some 15 minutes later, and that can be tracked on a smartphone. Matternet drones require landing pads at both the sending and receiving ends, and can land without the recipient present.The drone automatically stops its propellers so the contents can be retrieved — and the receiver can attach a new package or change the battery so it can fly further.