Where are the commercial delivery drones we were promised?

Picture this: It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and you’re getting ready to grill up some burgers in the backyard. You’ve sliced up some onion and tomato, pulled the cheese and lettuce out of the fridge, and ground up your very own blend of 70/30 lean-to-fat beef. Finally, you reach for your favorite brioche buns when you see it: the speckles of blue and green mold.

You could yell for the kids to get out of the pool and get changed so you can head to the grocery store and pick up some buns. You could make an order on a food delivery app and pray they get the right kind to you in a timely manner. Or, you can grab your cell phone, tap a few buttons, and head out to the yard.

You’ve laid out all your ingredients in a perfect assembly line, seasoned your patties, and pressed them on the grill with a satisfying sizzle. And just as you pull your burgers off the heat at a perfect medium-rare, you hear a faint buzzing noise above you. You look up to see a large rectangle adorned with six sets of spinning blades surrounding a sturdy plastic case. It hovers above you for a moment before slowly descending towards an empty section of grass in the yard. It lands and the blades come to a halt. You walk over, click open the plastic case, and retrieve a fresh bag of brioche buns from inside. You close the case, take a few steps back, and the rectangle comes to life, blades whirring, and flies off once more into the sky.

Though it may still sound like sci-fi, this was the future promised to us by countless tech CEOs a few years ago, chief among them being Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Back in December of 2013, Bezos announced that Amazon would be flying delivery drones to customers within five years. That deadline has since passed – but not because of the technology. Instead, it’s the regulation and logistics that are holding back the tide.

Alphabet (the parent company of Google) has a startup called Wing, which became the first drone delivery company to gain the FAA’s approval to make commercial deliveries in the United States in April. Other companies are still waiting for their status to be greenlit, such as Amazon Air, Uber Eats, and most recently, UPS.

The shipping giant has formed a new subsidiary called UPS Flight Forward Inc. and applied for their certification with the ultimate goal of running one of the first commercial drone delivery programs in the United States.

In March, UPS partnered with drone startup Matternet to transport medical samples via drone across a WakeMed hospital system in Raleigh, N.C., which became the first FAA sanctioned use of a drone for routine, revenue producing flights under a contractual delivery agreement.

Just last month, Amazon announced its new commercial delivery drone, promising that it would be delivering packages to customers within months. Of course, Amazon doesn’t have a great track record for meeting their deadlines in the air-delivery space. Amazon’s drone design has seen more than 20 iterations since its announcement in 2013, yet it remains the stringent regulatory restrictions holding back the rollout of their delivery program.

In the U.S., the major piece of regulation you’d need to operate a drone delivery service is called Part 135 certification under the Federal Aviation Administration, which applies to “air carriers and operators.” Drones are considered under the same umbrella as airplanes under federal law, and they’re subject to the same certification processes. The Part 135 certification allows for approved drones to fly at night, over people, and outside the operator’s direct line of sight.

Another factor to consider is public perception. In 2017, a PEW Research Center survey showed that 54 percent of Americans polled disapproved of drones flying near residential areas at all.

Whether or not this opinion has remained the same in the past two years, it hasn’t stopped these companies from continuing their preparation for the future. With UPS joining the fray, Wing receiving their Part 135 certification, and Amazon announcing – again – that Prime Air will be up and running soon, the future of a sky filled with delivery drones doesn’t seem all that far off.