Drones and Smart Mailboxes: Wave of the Future?

Most drone delivery companies deliver their cargo to customers point-to-point, in one of two ways.  Zipline, for example, flies its drones over recipient properties and time releases their cargo via parachute to a nearby landing zone.  The forward-flying aircraft never stops flying, saving time and reducing the delivery cost.  Other companies like Wing stop and hover over recipient properties, then slowly lower the customer’s package to the ground on a cable using a winch.  It takes more time but allows for a more precision drop – to a picnic table or a porch.

Two drone services companies – Valqari and Arrive (formerly DroneDek) – are working on a third delivery option:  the “smart” locker or mailbox.  The drone drops the desired cargo into a large upright storage cabinet conveniently located near customer homes – but not on their property.  The customers must then travel a short distance to the password-controlled locker to retrieve their packages at a convenient time.

The system, still in development, has several potential advantages. First, suppliers and customers need not coordinate their schedules to ensure a timely hand-off of cargo.  Second, because of the added security a smart locker also protects customer packages from possible theft by porch pirates, an issue of rising concern nationwide.  Third, with a properly sized mailbox or locker, and sufficient payload capacity, suppliers can provide delivery service to more than one customer living in the same neighborhood, possibly on a single drone flight, further reducing operational costs.

Valqari has been working on its smart locker concept for at least two years.  The technology is “drone agnostic” – any UAV model, regardless of its specs can use the system.  The locker – Valqari calls them “Drone Delivery Stations” – is programmed with all the relevant purchase and customer data and the approaching drone simply “pings” the locker to have it open its doors.  The drone lands atop the locker and drops its cargo inside, then automatically flies away.  Drone flights can be pre-programmed from a remote control station.  In theory, the entire operation requires little or no human intervention.

Arrive calls its drone storage stations “Mailbox as a Service” – or MaaS.  The basic concert is the same as Valqari’s, though the company’s early prototypes feature smaller cabinets that resemble trash bins.  In this case, the entire top opens and the drone doesn’t land but simply hovers over the box and drops its cargo inside, before flying away.

While both companies have highlighted the role of drone lockers in retail consumer deliveries, it could be that their more salient role is for businesses and medical supply deliveries.  Vaqari CEO Ryan Walsh says the company’s DDS system would be useful in any “high-volume, small payload” setting, including restaurants, hardware and auto parts stores.  In fact, one day smart lockers might one day be used for all daily postal delivery, replacing street mailboxes and even postal delivery crews.

What’s holding up the day-to-day use of drone storage lockers?  Regulatory obstacles, mainly.  The FAA is still debating BVLOS regulations for retail delivery drones and has only just recently extended special waivers to companies like Zipline and Wing, which are still pioneering their own point-to-point systems.  And there’s a need for more drone infrastructure, including vertiports and ground sensor systems that can ensure that long-distance flights are safe and technically feasible.

But some limited pilot operations are already underway.  In the fall of 2022, Arrive (then still known as Dronedek) began making storage locker deliveries – financed by Oracle – near its home base in Lawrence, Indiana.  The city is something of an emerging pioneer in the field of robotics and nearby Purdue University already uses robots for maintenance and other service tasks.

“We’re showcasing how this mailbox is ready right now for traditional delivery and what it can do in the near future when federal regulations are relaxed to enable autonomous delivery,” Dan O’Toole, Arrive’s founder and CEO said last year.  “We’re also marking the start of secure autonomous package delivery. It’s historic.”

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