In early November, the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure invited public comment on proposed Australia-wide “drone delivery guidelines” it is quietly developing with industry stakeholders.
A slick new website – drones.gov.au – brags about the supposed benefits of delivery drones. It claims they will create jobs, provide cost efficiency and be environmentally sustainable.
The design guidelines focus on minimal technical considerations related to land use (suggesting no special modifications needed for drones), and safety and noise issues. These issues are important, but they completely overlook it use of permits delivery drones to dominate our skies.
Then there’s the question of whether the purported benefits stand up to scrutiny. Our team at the University of Western Australia Minderoo Tech & Policy Laboratory has stress tested the assertions in the department’s guidelines. Here’s what you need to know.
Drone delivery networks would be a major problem
Drones hold promise because they can replace humans in dangerous or otherwise difficult (but important) work, such as emergency aid, collect from the air and shark patrol. Commercial delivery drones, however, are an entirely different proposition.
The main player behind them is Wing Aviationa subsidiary of Google’s holding company Alphabet Inc. Wing has selected Australia as its main test location for on request deliveries of coffee, roast chicken, Coke and chips. This is a public health and environmental catastrophe waiting to happen – not to mention a visceral (even violent) imposition of public space.
Wing has since operated in select areas of the ACT September 2017 and in Logan, Queensland, since September 2019. Despite subsidizing every aspect of its operations, creating no cost for merchants and consumers alike, it has not escaped complaints. Concerns ranged from noise and safety complaints to impacts on wildlife, pets and privacy.
Cities around the world are looking alternatives to highways – recognize how road infrastructure contributes social inequality, pollution and reduced quality of life. Do we want to replicate these problems in our skies?
The benefits of delivery drones have not been proven
The guidelines emphasize the economic and environmental promise of a drone-driven future. Added an expected A$14.5 billion to Australia’s GDP and 10,000 jobs across the next 20 years is undeniably attractive. But is the evidence consistent with this rosy view?
The figures mentioned in the guidelines are actually from October 2020 report prepared by Deloitte Access Economics for the Infrastructure department.
Crucially, the report brings together multiple markets for drone use, well beyond just delivery. The Deloitte report estimates that the segment of the drone market for military and industrial applications will grow to more than $5.5 billion, while the food delivery market is 20 times smaller at best at $0.26 billion. It appears that military and industrial applications drive the bold economic estimates in the guidelines — but the department doesn’t mention them.
Also, the 2020 report makes reservations if market expansion forecasts change, as does the economic analysis. Australia’s highest inflation in more than 30 years, linked to a global economic slowdown, and deterioration in business confidence suggests that Deloitte’s predictions may be based on shaky grounds.
The fragility of the economic promise is matched by equally superficial claims of environmental sustainability. There is a smart focus on “emissions from last mile deliveryto demonstrate the green credentials of drones. But this ignores the emissions generated throughout the entire supply chain this complex, technology-heavy one system.
There are compound emissions caused by additional warehouse and the needs power of drones – not to mention the explosion of disposable packaging, because reusable coffee cups and containers are in the back of the cupboard.
Drones of indulgence, not a necessity
The guidelines state that drones deliver “deliveries on request”. This begs the question: demanded by whom? Just two weeks ago, Deliveroo went voluntary administration in Australiaciting “challenging economic conditions”.
“On-demand supplies” is a loaded description that mixes necessity with desire – essential medication fades into doughnuts. This descriptive sleight of hand casts drones as an all-or-nothing offering, which of course isn’t true.
One can support Australia’s only other approved delivery drone operator, the regional medical supplier Dive Aerowithout having to tolerate repeated junk food deliveries to neighbors down the street.
Citizen approval should be essential
In 2002, Australia became the first country to do so regulate the use of civilian drones. The intervening 20 years have provided the drone industry with multiple opportunities to do so influence the regulatory process, usually out of the public eye. Delivery drones necessitate a completely different conversation.
In 2019, some unsuspecting Canberrans only discovered they were guinea pigs in a food delivery drone trial when the drones started showing up on their neighbours’ doorsteps. They then found out that the responsible company, Google Wing, also runs the public feedback process on behalf of the government. Such events do not provide the required transparency and impartiality government decision-making.
Drones call for an open and broad discussion about the vital, living habitat above our heads. We must resist empty promises and indulgences and put the much broader needs of all living beings at the center.
Google has the ambition to use Australia rather as a laboratory to develop the future of drone deliveries export abroad. Australians have a chance to turn this plan on its head. Submissions for feedback on the draft guidelines closed on 2 Dec. You can now have your say here.
- Hannah SmithResearch Fellow, UWA Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab, Law School, The University of Western Australia and Juliet Powles, associate professor of Law and Technology; Director, UWA Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab, Law School, The University of Western Australia