When you think of cutting edge business to consumer technology, you think of the big players like Google, Amazon, Samsung, Apple or Microsoft. You aren’t so quick to put 7-Eleven on your list. If someone was going to start making deliveries by RC Drone, you’d expect it to be one or more of those big boys. You wouldn’t expect the first successful drone deliveries to consumers to be made by a convenience store. But that’s exactly what happened.
The world’s largest convenience store chain, 7-Eleven, conducted the first regular consumer drone delivery service in America. It launched its trial way ahead of planned services like Amazon Prime Air or Project Wing. And it did what many drone operations are struggling with – making successful deliveries in highly populated urban and suburban areas. Not all drone deliveries are created equal, and managing to deliver to densely populated locations poses significantly more challenges than delivering to rural customers. 7-Eleven took the bull by the horns and made their drone deliveries in Reno, Nevada.
Now, having fresh, hot coffee and your favorite donut delivered by drone sounds really appealing, but right now it’s not massively practical. United States law dictates that you cannot fly a drone out of sight of the drone pilot, without special permission from the FAA. Therefore, delivery radius is fairly limited. For the 7-Eleven trial, all deliveries were made within a one-mile radius of the store to ensure that they were within sight of the pilot. However, the drones did fly autonomously. In total, 77 drone deliveries were made during the trial phases and reached customers, on average, within 10 minutes of the order being placed according to Flirtey, the company behind the drones.
The drones found their intended location using GPS. Once at their destination, the drones hovered a short distance above the ground, then lowered the packages.
Here’s the video of 7-Eleven’s first drone delivery in Reno: Flirtey making history with the first US drone delivery
For drone deliveries to work on a larger scale, as well as other drone applications, the FAA and NASA recognize that there needs to be new regulations and some kind of low-altitude air traffic control system in place. This would allow drones to fly autonomously over longer distances, without the pilot needing to be within line of sight. To accomplish this, both organizations conducted tests in Reno in October 2016, although this is just one small step in a huge project.
In December, Amazon completed its own drone delivery trial. It chose to conduct its test in the United Kingdom, in a rural spot in Cambridge, to be precise. It took just 13 minutes from the time the customer placed the order to delivery, which is pretty impressive without the assistance of a human pilot.
Here’s Amazon’s recording of its Prime Air delivery: Amazon Prime Air's First Customer Delivery
Flirtey actually made the very first FAA-approved delivery by drone before its partnership with 7-Eleven. Back in July 2015, Flirtey, in partnership with NASA’s Langley Research Center, along with Virginia Tech and the Mid Atlantic Aviation Partnership, delivered medication to a rural medical clinic in Virginia. The package was flown by NASA’s remotely operated winged aircraft to a small regional airport. From there, Flirtey’s drone completed the delivery. Like the model used in the 7-Eleven trials, Flirtey’s aluminum and carbon fiber drone used a controlled delivery system that enabled the drone to carefully lower the package for delivery while hovering in place with its six rotors. This meticulously crafted drone has fail-safes built in, too. If, for example, it detects low battery, low GPS signal, or communication loss, it automatically pilots back to a preset “safe” location.
This historic drone has been donated to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where it has taken its place among iconic exhibits, including the Discovery and the SR-71 Blackbird.
While we’re a long way from widespread deliveries by drone, the trials show it has massive potential in all kinds of situations, not just commerce. Drones would, in theory, also be able to deliver emergency supplies to otherwise inaccessible areas, for example.
Yes, 7-Eleven beat Google, Amazon, and other big consumer and technology brands to the first U.S. consumer deliveries via drone and did a comprehensive 77-delivery trial. However, there are plenty of companies, including Google, Amazon, UPS, fast food chains and many others, all investing serious resources into developing a sustainable delivery by drone setup.