It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an extra-spicy beef gyro with lettuce and tomato, wrapped in fresh, warm pita bread with hot sauce and a can of Pepsi on the side. And it’s catching a ride from the restaurant to the customer’s home in the basket of a food delivery drone.
These winged waiters are the futuristic delivery method emerging on the horizon. Literally. In some restaurants, drones are taking the place of food couriers. In other places, they are inside the restaurant itself, carefully carrying the food from the kitchen to the dining room. Proponents of drone food delivery hope to redefine the food industry, claiming that drones are more efficient, reliable, and even more affordable than in-person service. Others in the industry are more cautious, and think the trend will take several years to “get off the ground.”
How are Drone Couriers Being Used?
There are three different ways that these automated servers are being put to work.
Door to Door
With Amazon and UPS beginning to automate their deliveries, some restaurants are hopping onto the drone food delivery trend as well. These delivery drones work in a similar way to in-person deliveries. The customer puts in an order. The restaurant prepares the order and carefully packages it into the drone’s basket, ensuring that the food is cushioned in a spill-proof manner. Then, the drone takes off and navigates through the sky. At the customer’s door, the delivery drone uses cables to carefully lower the package of food, before flying off again.
Flytrex, the company piloting this pilotless delivery experience to diners in the United States, is now operational in a handful of suburban areas. As FAA regulations relax, Flytrex is slowly expanding its drone food delivery reach.
And those it has reached seem to be satisfied customers. After partnering with Flytrex to create “Air Loco”, the El Pollo Loco restaurant chain garnered millions of interested signees waiting to hear when the drone food delivery service would expand to their neighborhood.
Andy Rebhun, El Pollo Loco’s digital and marketing officer says about the experience, “It changed the trajectory for our organization. When you hear drone delivery, you think about something that’s super-futuristic.” And as far as its reliability, Rebhun explained, “We haven’t had any drinks spill, which is probably a little bit surprising. It’s very smooth.”
Designated Drop-Off Location
A variation of direct drop-off, designated locations combine traditional and drone food delivery. This hybrid method expedites the delivery time from restaurant to customer.
Here’s how it works:
The restaurant prepares the food and carefully packages it into a delivery drone. The drone takes off, flies to the designated drop-off area near the customer’s home, and cables the food down to a human delivery driver. The driver takes off, food in hand, and brings it to the customer’s home.
Because the majority of the legwork is done by the drone, the hybrid drone food delivery method is still faster and more reliable than the traditional delivery methods that restaurants use. With a designated drop-off, the human driver reduces the risk of error and can confirm that the delivery took place.
In addition, some people simply don’t want drones hovering above their homes and neighborhoods. Drop-off deliveries take this concern into consideration, while still providing the reliability and speed benefits of direct drone food delivery.
UberEats is one of the companies investing in getting drop-off drone food deliveries off the ground. They envision a drone that can drop the food directly onto the roof of a delivery vehicle, with minimal human contact needed.
In May of 2022, UberEats launched its first two pilot delivery drones. If these pilots work out well, the company hopes to expand its drone food delivery fleet. “We’ll be able to learn from both of those pilots what customers actually want, what merchants actually want and what makes sense for delivery as we start to integrate our platform with AV (autonomous vehicle) companies,” explained an Uber spokesperson. “The hope is that they’re successful and that we learn over the coming months, and then figure out how to scale.”
In contrast to drop-off and direct delivery drones, a third method keeps delivery drones homebound — or rather restaurant bound. Instead of hitting the streets, drones deliver food straight to dining-in customers from the kitchen, a few dozen feet away. Drone servers need to be technologically advanced with sensors and stereo-vision cameras to help them avoid bumping into diners in crowded restaurants.
Alongside the “flying saucers” bringing saucers of food to the table, human waiters still take orders and engage with customers. Automating the delivery of the dining-in experience allows waiters to be more present, and spend more time ensuring that diners’ needs are met. It also reduces on-the-job injuries from running in and out of the kitchen and balancing heavy trays, and it allows for less congested dining spaces.
A Singapore restaurant was the first to launch this drone food delivery initiative. Junyang Woon, from Infinium Robotics explains the rationale, “Its job is to help the waiters, to alleviate some of their mundane tasks.”
What are the Benefits of Drone Food Delivery?
Airborne orders can solve some of the challenges of traditional food delivery methods. This is a boon for restaurants, because these challenges have a negative effect on customer satisfaction and retention.
When it comes to restaurant takeout, a recent survey revealed that nine out of ten customers have had issues with food deliveries. These issues ranged from delayed deliveries, to incorrect orders, and even to drivers tasting customer’s food. Actually, more than 50 percent of customers suspected couriers of sampling their food.
Delivery issues impact directly on a restaurant’s business. More than half of customers, using third party delivery apps like GrubHub and DoorDash, who received late deliveries, blamed the restaurant for the issue. And four out of ten users experiencing delivery issues simply gave up on the initial order and ordered from a different restaurant.
Drone food delivery can alleviate some of these issues, making for happier and more loyal customers.
Here are some benefits of drone food delivery:
- Faster than traditional delivery methods: drones don’t get caught in traffic or at red lights.
- More reliable: with these non-human couriers, the food doesn’t get spilled or nibbled at along the way.
- Cheaper than buying and servicing delivery vehicles: drones can also eliminate the cost of using third-party delivery services.
- Expands the customer base: drones can service customers in hard-to-reach areas or places too far for traditional deliveries to get to in a timely fashion.
- Environmentally friendly: drones run on electricity and are better for the planet than a fleet of delivery cars.
- Staff retention: it’s no secret that there has been a labor shortage recently along with peaking demand for food delivery. Automation can fill in the gaps, and allow restaurants to keep up with demand.
- Marketing: drone food delivery is a novelty that can attract curious and adventurous eaters.
What are the Drawbacks of Drone Food Delivery?
Flying food seems to make sense. It is cheaper, faster, and greener, and can help restaurants keep up with surging demand. However, those in food service should be aware of the limitations of drone food delivery.
Here are some of the drawbacks:
- Weather: drones may not be able to make their delivery in stormy weather, including heavy rain and high winds.
- Accessibility: drones work best in suburban areas, where skies are emptier, there are less buildings in the way, and they can fast-rope deliveries to the front door. Apartment and city dwellers can’t be as conveniently serviced by drones.
- Customer reception: some people prefer the human touch of traditional delivery methods. Additionally, suburban residents may have concerns about neighborhood drones being noisy or snooping on them.
- Maintenance: drones can malfunction, or they can break down if they are made to carry too heavy a load. These hidden costs are something for restaurant owners to keep in mind.
- Legality: this is a key factor that is stopping the industry from “taking off.” The FAA still has concerns about the potential for drones to interfere with airplanes. As such, they are giving licenses to only a few companies in a few areas per year, as they study the potential hazards. The FAA is likely to open the skies more completely in the coming years, making drone food delivery a realistic option for restaurants.
The future is here. The world is automating. Robots, machines, and drones are becoming commonplaces and taking vital roles in a number of industries. Drones will certainly play a forefront in reinventing the food industry. How soon this happens will depend on the technology and regulation limitations. Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, has already pledged for the city to be a drone-friendly space by 2023. And from there — the world.