The True Prices of Delivery drones

The Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure covertly developed “drone delivery standards” with industry stakeholders and solicited public feedback on the proposal at the beginning of November., a snazzy new website, boasts of the alleged advantages of delivery drones. It asserts that they will boost the economy, offer cost effectiveness, and preserve the environment.

The proposed rules put the most emphasis on safety and noise concerns, as well as the most basic technical aspects of land-use planning (suggesting that drones don’t require any specific accommodations). These concerns are important, but they completely ignore the risks associated with allowing delivery drones to take over our skies.

Then there is the issue of whether the alleged benefits can be verified. The assertions stated in the department’s recommendations have been put to the test by our team at the Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab at the University of Western Australia. What you need to know is this.

Drone delivery networks would be a big deal.

Drones have a lot of potential to replace humans in risky or otherwise challenging (but crucial) tasks including emergency assistance, aerial mustering, and shark patrol. Drones used for commercial deliveries, though, are a completely different matter.

The main force behind them is Wing Aviation, a division of Alphabet Inc., the holding company for Google. Wing has chosen Australia as its primary test country for its on-demand coffee, roast chicken, Coke, and chip deliveries. This is a visceral (even violent) encroachment on public space, not to mention a public health and environmental catastrophe waiting to happen.

Wing has been in business since September 2017 in a few ACT locations, and since September 2019 in Logan, Queensland. Even though the operations are completely free for both businesses and customers, objections have been raised. Noise and safety problems, as well as effects on animals, pets, and privacy, have all been causes for concern.

Following intense opposition from the locals, Wing was forced to stop operations in Bonython. Up to eight loud deliveries can be received by neighbors in Logan each hour, according to locals who claim to be alarmed.

In recognition of how road infrastructure leads to socioeconomic injustice, pollution, and a lower quality of life, cities all over the world are looking for alternatives to highways. Do we want these issues to recur in our skies?

Unproven benefits of delivery drones

The guidelines underline the economic and environmental potential of a future with many drones. It is obviously alluring to add A$14.5 billion to Australia’s GDP and 10,000 employment over the following two decades. But does the evidence support this optimistic outlook?

The figures included in the recommendations were actually taken from a Deloitte Access Economics report from October 2020 that was created for the Department of Infrastructure.

Crucially, the report aggregates multiple markets for drone use, well beyond just delivery. In the Deloitte report, the segment of the drone market for military and industrial applications is estimated to grow to more than $5.5 billion, while the food delivery market, at $0.26 billion, is at best 20 times smaller. It appears military and industrial applications drive the bold economic estimates found in the guidelines—yet the department doesn’t mention them.

Also, the 2020 report caveats if its predictions of market expansion change, so too will its economic analysis. Australia’s highest inflation rate in more than 30 years, coupled with a global economic slowdown, and worsening business confidence suggests Deloitte’s predictions are perhaps on shaky grounds.

The fragility of the economic promise is matched by equally shallow claims of environmental sustainability. There is a shrewd focus on “last-mile delivery emissions” to demonstrate drones’ green credentials. But this ignores the emissions generated along the entire logistics chain of this complex, technology-heavy system.

Before we even consider the growth in single-use packaging, while reusable coffee cups and containers linger at the back of the cabinet, there are compounded emissions caused by additional warehousing and the power needs of drones.

Drones of luxury rather than necessity

According to the regulations, drones provide “on-demand supplies.” This begs the question, by whom demanded? Deliveroo entered voluntary administration in Australia a mere two weeks ago, claiming “difficult economic conditions.”

The phrase “on-demand supply” carries a lot of baggage since it confounds want with need, conflating donuts with prescription medication. This literary device presents drones as an all-or-nothing proposition, which is obviously inaccurate.

Supporting the only other authorized drone delivery company in Australia, the local medical supplier Swoop Aero, is possible without having to put up with the neighbors down the street receiving repeated deliveries of fast food.

The consent of the people should be required.

n 2002, Australia became the first country to regulate civilian drone use. The intervening 20 years have afforded the drone industry multiple opportunities to influence the regulatory process, mostly beyond the public eye. Delivery drones necessitate an entirely different conversation.

In 2019, some unsuspecting Canberrans only discovered they were guinea pigs in a food delivery drone trial when the drones began to appear on their neighbor’s doorsteps. They then found out the company responsible, Google Wing, also runs the public feedback process on behalf of the government. Such events do not deliver the transparency and impartiality demanded of government decision-making.

Drones call for a wide-ranging conversation on the important, living environment above our heads. We need to put the much broader needs of all living beings first and reject hollow promises and indulgence.

Google hopes to develop the future of drone deliveries in Australia before bringing it to other countries. Australians have a chance to reverse this strategy. The deadline for comments on the draft guidelines is December 2. You can then voice your opinion here.

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