Australia may soon be the first country in the world to see commercial courier deliveries by drone, if a launch by a textbook rental service and an Australian tech start-up goes according to plan.
From March next year and pending regulatory approval, students will be able to order books from Zookal via an Android smartphone app and have one of six Flirtey drones deliver them to their door in Sydney. As the drone arrives, students will be able to track it in real-time on a Google map.
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Need a book? Call a drone
The world's first unmanned aerial drone controlled by GPS for deliveries is set to launch next year and will reduce costs by flying rental textbooks directly to users.
After its initial launch, Flirtey hopes to then expand the service to other products and locations, even seeing potential to deliver food and drinks to people and blood to and from blood banks and hospitals in future.
Textbook rental service Zookal partnered with Flirtey, a start-up born at the University of Sydney, to cut costs on deliveries. If Flirtey gets the approval of Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) it will be the first use of fully automated commercial drones for deliveries in the world, the company claims.
Zookal's founder Ahmed Haider is confident. Australian regulators entered the Drone Age in 2002, when Australia became the first country to introduce legislation covering unmanned aerial vehicles, leading the world in creating rules governing civilian use of the technology.
But whether the company can get CASA's approval remains to be seen.
"I think CASA's smart," Haider said. "They recognise that this is going to be one of the next multibillion-dollar industries and they're taking a sort of proactive rather than reactive approach in laying the foundations for the new industry. So I'm pretty sure … they're onboard."
CASA confirmed it had been corresponding with Zookal but an application had not yet been lodged.
Melbourne's Metropolitan Fire Brigade already uses drones to survey emergency situations and is one of the 56 operators in Australia who have a licence to operate one. In one recent example, it used a "CyberQuads" drone to survey a truck hanging precariously from a freeway in Melbourne's north in March. Animal rights activists have also used them to spy on farmers, while Channel Nine's 60 Minutes used one when it flew over Christmas Island's immigration detention centre. The craft later crashed into the sea. Another crash occurred earlier this month when a drone collided with the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
A number of companies have attempted to get the drone delivery idea off the ground. Domino's Pizza sent its "DomiCopter" on a test flight in June in Britain. Tacocopter.com also proposed to deliver tacos in San Francisco's Bay Area using drones, but commercial drones aren't yet a possibility in the US and Britain.
The US Federal Aviation Authority acting administrator, Michael Huerta, recently said the agency was poised to realign itself to prepare for the coming explosion of drones. It will begin granting personal and commercial licences in 2015 and estimates that there could be as many as 30,000 drones flying around the US by 2020.
Unlike many amateur drones, such as the AR.Drone, which are steered with a remote control, Flirtey will be autonomous and use "collision avoidance" technology to avoid birds and buildings. It will fly high enough to avoid pedestrians and below 122 metres.
"We use laser range finders in terms of mapping out spaces as well as sonar technology," said Haider. "So it doesn't actually have a physical camera. It's connected to GPS on the users' mobile phone."
The delivery mechanism allows for textbooks to be safely lowered to the customer without the drone having to leave its hovering height of about three metres. If gentle force is applied to the drone's lowering cord, the parcel is released.
It has built in redundancy, including a back-up battery, and can also continue to operate if one rotor blade fails.
The drones — which can carry up to 2 kilograms — will significantly reduce the cost of delivering textbooks. Same day postal delivery in Australia can cost up to $29.95, a cost Zookal absorbs, but Flirtey will cost just $2.99.
The drones will also reduce waiting times to as little as two to three minutes, the company claims.
In the future, Flirtey plans to deliver food and drinks; sees potential in using drones at beaches to deliver life vests to those in distress, and in hospitals, where blood could be transported to and from blood banks.
Haider said the idea of delivering textbooks via drones came about after trying to find ways to reduce delivery cost, one of the company's biggest expenses.
"We immediately saw that commercialising this technology would solve so many problems within logistics."
Flirtey founder Matt Sweeny said he came up with the idea of using drones while in China where his McDonald's orders were delivered via bicycle "in moments".
Should CASA not approve delivery directly to homes, Sweeny said designated "drop off" areas, in places such as parks, might become Plan B.
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This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb