Why the skies will soon be filled with flying, snack-bearing robots
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne
On May 11 of this year, a man in the Worli neighborhood of south Mumbai reportedly stepped out onto the balcony of his 21st story high-rise apartment, and watched as a drone swooped from the sky to deposit a 13-inch margherita pizza at his feet. This wasn’t some misguided CIA hearts-and-minds experiment. It was an experimental delivery from Francesco’s, a local pizzeria, and a brilliant reclamation of one of modern warfare’s most ubiquitous monsters in the service of ever faster cheesy gratification. Avoiding Mumbai’s notorious traffic, the drone (flying at about 20 mph) reportedly made the two-mile delivery in just 10 minutes, a third of the usual wait. And, to many, it was also a saucy beacon of hope, that maybe this Mumbai pie in the sky could set an example for the West, where drone delivery has been attempted again and again, but has always been stymied by cautious regulators.
Mikhel Rajani, Francesco’s CEO, actually got the idea for aerial pizza delivery from Amazon’s December 2013 announcement (and promo video) that the online retail giant was hoping to use drones for future deliveries. But that wasn’t the West’s first drone delivery idea—our obsession with flying food, like most of our other great culinary innovations, probably began with a case of the munchies. As far back as May 2012, TacoCopter floated the idea of using drones to deliver food to the incurably lazy. Then there was California’s flying Burrito Bomber. In the UK, Domino’s recently celebrated the maiden voyage of their DomiCopter, and, just this month, of Milford, CT, followed suit.
The fulfillment services proposed by parcel delivery companies like Amazon, FedEx, and UPS, were ultimately overambitious; the limited flight radius, low load capacity, and extreme expense of durable drones made them less than ideal for bigger packages, but food delivery actually seemed within reach .Yet, our dreams of hovering hoagies were dashed before they could take off, killed by governmental regulations (currently being challenged and scheduled for a 2015 revision) restricting the use of drones to hobby and recreational use.
Francesco’s almost proved that drone deliveries were possible and practical. Unfortunately, the Mumbai police didn’t much like their test run. After seeing the pizza delivery video, they launched an inquiry to see if Rajani had broken the law. He claims that, since the recipient didn’t pay for the experimental pie, it doesn’t qualify as commercial drone use, so he was in his rights under Indian law. A month after the video showed up online, the cops even released a report claiming that the flight may have been a hoax, a promotional stunt edited together for headline bait.
But even if the Francesco’s delivery was a stunt, there’s no reason to lose hope for airborne eats. Last year, China (despite earlier reservations) allowed SF Express to run deliveries of up to 6.5 pounds in the southeastern city of Dongguang. This year, the United Arab Emirates will use drones to send official government documents, like driver’s licenses, to citizens. And there is at least one fully functional drone pizza delivery system out there—DoDo Pizza in Syktyvkar, Russia. lowering the pizza on a cable when the recipient walks out the door. His drones, which are as cheap as $15 each, can carry up to 10 pounds and fly at about 25 mph.
And now, like Ovchinnikov, at least one American company is ready to throw caution to the wind and take to the skies. QuiQui, a startup in San Francisco’s Mission district, wants to start using drones to deliver drugstore items. Taking advantage of recent uncertainty among regulators, they plan to start flights this month.
Whether a slice of pizza flew through the skies of India or not, existing drone deliveries from China to Russia to America have set a new precedent. The age of the drone is already upon us; there’s no use in cowering now. Just look forward to a delicious future of tacos, burgers, or chow mein, slipping the surly bonds of earth and floating gently through your living room window.