Tag Archives: Google

Drone Commerce, Part 1: Same-day Delivery

As an aerospace engineer-turned-Internet software architect, it was probably only a matter of time before I wrote a post about the expanding use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (a.k.a. Drones). Now that we have two eCommerce giants entering the Drone Space makes it a good time as any to explore the practical viability of this from the point of view of someone who has built vehicles that fly, software that controls them, and large-scale eCommerce and data platforms.

In one corner we have Amazon’s exploration of drones for same-day delivery (interesting aside: Jeff Bezos, as owner of Blue Origin is also a commercial space entrepreneur). In the other corner with have Google’s recent purchase of Titan Aerospace for drone-based Internet service provision and Google Earth data capture (interesting aside: Google the ‘K’ in KML stands for Keyhole, something Google got when they bought Keyhole, Inc.—a company with a very interesting provenance to anyone who has worked in satellite technology for the IC).

Are these explorations of drone tech whacky uses of capital buy companies with more cash then they know what to do with or are they viable commercial pursuits with long, complex lead times? In part 1 of this series, I will look at the Amazon’s consideration of drones for same-day delivery. In part 2, I will look at Google’s ideas for Internet service provision and Google Earth data capture.

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To use drones (on a repeated basis) for package delivery, you have to overcome many, many challenges, including very big aerospace-related ones:

  • Large payload without large size
  • Safe, efficient flying (and delivery) operation
  • FAA approval to fly in populated places

This leaves out other non-aerospace challenges, ones Amazon has solved very well, such as efficient logistics management, protecting drones against hackers, notifying customers of immediate delivery, and other classic delivery challenges.

Challenge 1: Large Payload without Large Size

To be profitable (from a gross margin perspective), you need to either be able to deliver a good amount of packages (think how many packages a UPS or FedEx truck carries). This requires payload capacity. However, to fly drones to where people live and work, you need small drones. It is not viable to fly (and land) a MQ-9 Reaper-sized drone a 20-meter wingspan on residential street or commercial rooftop. You will most likely need a drone with a 1-2 meter wingspan (or body-span for quadcopter drones). Unfortunately small drones do not have high carrying capacity:

Body Span or Wing Span Payload
1 m 1 – 10 kg
3 m 5 – 20 kg
5 m 20 kg – 100 kg
10 m 100 kg – 400 kg

Payload Capacity by Wingspan with Current Drone Technology

The cause of is simply the laws of physics (specifically flight kinematics). The more you carry, the heavier you are. The heavier you are, the larger your wingspan or propellers need to be to generate sufficient lift. The large heavier you are, and the larger your wingspan—the more fuel (or heavier batteries) you need—compounding the problem. This is a non-trivial problem to solve. It is the major reason we do not have the capability for more than sub-orbital commercial space flight or commercially viable hovercrafts people can ride in residential areas—even 45 years after the Moon landing. It is also a problem that exacerbated by the style of flying needed for repeated delivery of packages throughout the day.

Challenge 2: Safe, Efficient Flying Operation

To be a viable vehicle for delivery, drones have to safely take off, navigate through a complex three-dimensional space, and land—repeatedly throughout the day, day-in and day-out. As this is a big set of challenges, it is easier to look at each individually.

Takeoff and Landing: Takeoff and landing is a lot more challenging than simple level flight. First, take consumes a lot more than level flight—the energy penalty depends on you payload, wingspan and runway size, exacerbating the “payload vs. size” challenge discussed above. Second, when you are flying slowly at low altitudes (i.e., just as you are taking off or landing) you are much higher risk of crashing due to wind shear-induced lost of lift: when this happens at 36,000’ you get turbulence; when this happens at 36’ you count on the training and experience of your pilot to adjust rapidly to keep you from hitting the ground. Unfortunately, drones do not have pilots. As such, the round-trip communication to a remote operator is not fast enough for instant adjustments, drones typically rely on onboard software to make immediate corrections. However, this software is not handling the simple operation of landing a drone on a remote landing strip, it is managing landing in a city (perhaps on a building or perhaps in your driveway). This obstacle can be overcome with better software (and lots of machine learning). Nevertheless you still have the “energy penalty” of taking off and landing over and over again through the day.

Cruising Navigation: Drones that delivery goods are going to have navigate a complex three-dimensional space populated with buildings, power wires, antennae, birds, other drones, and weather (small size and repeated take off and landing are going to require them to fly well-below 12,000’, making them subject rain, hail, snow, lower visibility and much more turbulent airflow than one encounters at altitudes that planes need to reach before pilots let you get up and move around the cabin). After 20 years of military use, we have gotten pretty good at letting drones to this successfully. Unfortunately you are flying at an altitude that is very inefficient. As a result you still have the nagging “energy penalty” cited several times already.

Challenge 3: Getting FAA Approval

This is the one challenge on my list that is based on socio-political systems—rather than flight dynamics and physics. However, it is an especially big barrier to overcome, as Amazon would not be getting approval large-scale, complex drone operation: many drones taking off and landing, many times a day, in populated area instead of drone that cruise at high altitudes or are operate at low scale by hobbyists at parks.

The numbers that drive the scale for profitable operations make this challenge especially difficult. Today, the piloted planes have 9.4 accidents per million flights (statistically very safe). Let’s use this to run some numbers:

  • If drones are as safe as planes and I have only five drones operating in each of the 50 largest cities and they are only doing 10 deliveries each a day (not very efficient vs. UPS), I will see a drone crash every 40 days
  • If drones are a bit less safe (likely as they fly at low altitude, take and land very often in complex environment, and do not the support of air traffic controllers and highly-trained pilots on board), I will see a crash every month.
  • These are not “landed hard and broken the container” crashes. They are “collided with building, power wire, tree or other obstacle”-type and “got flipped over in the crosswind and “dropped several stories into a street or rooftop”-type crashes.

What would this look like in the aviation regulatory space? The first crash would lead to a fleet grounding, NTSB investigation, and perhaps some hearings. A second crash after the first set of issues are addressed would lead to an even longer grounding and likely a change in allowed places of drone operation—especially if a person was hurt. At best, this would make commercial operation low margin; at worst, a big drag on the company’s reputation, stock price and liability.

Conclusion

A hate to be a naysayer—especially as a person who went to school to build planes, rockets and satellites that would give us the ability to travel more places, faster and more conveniently. However, it is hard to be profitable while fighting the laws of physics in complex conditions. Aviation technology can be improved, but generally not at the same rate as Moore’s Law (precisely because you are dealing with objects with much more mass than electrons and photons). As such, I do not see drone-based delivery being profitable—especially given the low-cost and high-efficiency of ground-based delivery (something that is going to get even better as the Internet of Things makes fleet management more efficient and Amazon’s machine learning lets them pre-position items before you even order them).

Jeff Bezos is a very, very smart man. It is my guess that his work in drone technology is not really focused on a better goods delivery mousetrap but instead something else that can scale at lower cost and higher efficiency. If I had to guess, I would say it would be related to streaming content or using peer-to-peer networking to bypassing carrier restrictions. That’s more of a topic or my next post in this series.

Updates:

Unboxing Google Glass

After a second try, I finally got into the Google Glass Explorer program. I tried last year but waited too long to apply (about 36 hours after the application process opened). This time, I moved faster.

As not a lot of people have the opportunity to get to use Glass (I am lucky, my employer is paying for me to explore its use for M2M and IoT), I thought I would share my initial experiences getting—and unboxing—Glass to help those considering entering the program later.

The First Step: Registering for the Explorer Program

Registering for and buying Glass is a bit different, so I thought I would start here. It turns out you will need to link Glass to a Gmail account. As such, I strongly recommend using a Gmail account when you apply to the program. I think Google should add these instructions in the registration process, perhaps if it detects your email is not one that they manage at Gmail or Google Apps.

Application Approval

GlassProgramSmallMy application got approved about 10 days later, via email. The email contained a sixteen-digit alpha purchase code that was very obviously place. It also contains a 16-digit numeric unique ID in much smaller font in the email footer. Keep track of this, as you will need to enter it if you call the Glass Help Center.

I made the mistake of using a corporate email account (one not based on Google Apps). This created a bit of a problem for me, one that required a call to the Glass Help Center to resolve. I can say that the Glass Help Center staff are quite friendly and responsive. Working with them is more akin to a call with a Professional Services team than a call to a typical call center or corporate IT help desk.

Purchasing Glass

It turns out that you can only buy Glass with Google Wallet. As such, your experience will be much easier if you 1) apply with a Gmail account and 2) have a Google Wallet for this account set up in advance. If so, you need only click on the Get Glass URL and proceed. You will be prompted to confirm which Gmail account you want to use, then re-authenticate to Wallet to make your purchase. The entire process should take less than five clicks and one password to complete.

I did it a bit backwards. As the Glass Help Center let me know I would need to have Wallet setup, I was able to log into my Gmail, register for Wallet and add a Payment Method before re-starting my purchase. Once I go my purchase reference code reset, I was able to go through this process pretty quickly (it would have been less fun to stop, setup Wallet, then re-start).

I chose to purchase basic Glass (I picked the Shale color). I did have the option of a few Hipster-like frames that could support prescription lenses. However, I do not wear glasses so I went for the minimalist—and least expensive—options. I did get the free–detachable–Active Shades (essentially Terminator-style sunglass shade). Get these. They are incredibly useful if you are looking at the viewer screen in bright sunlight (a rarity in Boston).

activeshades

Shipping and Delivery

The time from purchase to delivery was amazingly fast: I purchased around 11am, got an email notice that Google was handing off my purchase to UPS around five hours later, and received the package in Boston the next morning by 10am. This next-day shipping was included in the $1,500 price.

What arrives will be a four-pound box about 2x the width and 1.5x the length of a shoebox. Coincidentally, my Glass came on the same day as my new Nexus 7. However as the Nexus was uncharged, I used my iPhone to take all of the following photos:

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Unboxing Glass

I waited until the end of the workday to open the box (I admit the engineer in me wanted to start right away).

Upon opening the UPS box and packing I was presented with a white box with a San Serif Glass logo and XE on the side. The packaging was very similar to what you would see with a high-end product (akin to Lytro and first iPad, but a bit nicer). The back of the box is black (so is the inner cover):

box

The Archive Shades are in their own box (and could be shipped separated based on my initial email receipt). They come in their own “Glass” branded felt sleeve:

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Opening the Glass box reveals a translucent paper screen cover (mysterious?!):

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This cover easily comes off, revealing the Glass with the only written instructions for use that comes in the packaging:

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Lifting this off reveals an interesting felt pouch with an armored base—yes, an armored felt pouch. As the ticket explains, this is intended to protect your Glass when you pack it away (the armored shell makes the pouch 1.75” deep:

IMG_1883

Underneath this pouch is a black card with your ear bud:

IMG_1870

And underneath this is your USB 3.0 cable with detachable electric plug. The cord appears to be 36” long:

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Also included are some replacement nose pads and a funny FAQ. One example:

Q: Can I use Glass while operating a jackhammer?
A: Use caution.

IMG_1884

Charging Glass

When I plugged Glass into charge, it automatically booted up without me pressing the ON button. This can also take up to 30 seconds at times. However, it charges rather quickly (about the same speed that a smartphone charges, much faster than a tablet does).

Setting Up Glass

IMG_1875You will need either an Android or iOS phone or tablet to setup Glass as you will need to install the MyGlass App (iTunes version, Google Play version). I chose to use my iPhone as I did not want to walk around with an Android Tablet in my hand and Google Glass on my face. However, I may pair the phone to my Tablet as well as I experiment with Glass a bit more.

I definitely recommend you turn BlueTooth and your Personal HotSpot on BEFORE launching the MyGlass App and starting the pairing process. As I learned first-hand, it will save you the mess of aborting the process, turning these on (I keep them off to save power), and re-starting the process. I would recommend Google improve the App to detect these settings and notify you to exit and turn them before continuing to device pairing (unfortunately, iOS now forbids apps from turning these settings on for you—a now-needed security precaution in today’s world).

Unfortunately I could not take photos through Glass while I was setting it up (not unexpected). You can see videos of the setup process here, on the Glass YouTube Channel. I admit that setting up Glass created the opportunity for me to imitate Fred Armisen’s infamous Glass skit on SNL. I was very glad I could do this in the privacy of my house, doing it in the office would have created more than a few laughs.

Using Glass

I will now spend the next week playing around with Glass to fully understand the UX before I start thinking about how I would designing how an Glass app would work. However, I can say from my first hour of using Glass that it IS a very different experience, one that takes some getting accustomed to. I want to try to remember this experience so I can design applications that will be immediately useable from Day 1. (I did try to see if I could get actions of Glass to trigger IFTTT–alas, there are no Glass triggers yet).

This does not surprise me. I consider Glass on of Clayton Christensen’s classic disruptive innovations. While it is behind in some areas (the camera is not as good as a standard smartphone, usability is still a work in progress), it provides other capabilities nothing else does.

Final Note: Commercial Applicability of Glass

I know many people think Glass is not a commercially viable product. Some cite price point, others appearance, others limited availability. However, I believe that coupling of SDK from the people who brought us the Operating System with fastest adoption in history with a wide range of capabilities (POV-based camera and microphone, hands-free operation and telephony, voice recognition and Internet access) opens the door to some very interesting augment reality-based applications.

I have always thought the most beneficial Glass apps would be those that mapped to real-life activities—but streamlining them by eliminating the need to use your hands to record information and augmenting them by capturing information from your direct POV and combining this with other information. This could be provide enough benefit to justify Glass’ not-insignificant cost in wide range of business situations, from capturing the vision of a contract artisan or craftsperson (my first idea) to a whole new set of ideas I am now exploring.

Glass is a trademark of Google Inc.