Drones and droids could make deliveries from the sky

For years, a drone company called Zipline has been making deliveries using a fairly traditional approach: An unmanned aircraft with an 11-foot wingspan drops a package with a parachute and descends to the ground thanks to the predictable presence of gravity. Today, the company announced that it’s working on a new system for drone delivery that’s a little more technological: They plan to use what they’re referring to as a “droid” to drop a package directly onto a target, like a customer’s backyard table.

The goal of using this so-called droid—more on how it all works in a moment—is to be able to deposit the delivery in an accurate manner, even if there is wind. The company refers to this new approach as platform two. (Platform one refers to the parachute approach, which uses a plane that can fly forward but cannot hover in place.) Perhaps, speculates the company’s chief engineering officer, Jo Mardall, the arrival of a package with the new system will even be a surprise to a customer.

“The core of platform two is really about enabling ultra-precise, silent delivery to homes,” Mardall, Tesla’s former director of engineering, tells PopSci. “I like to think, for platform two, I might be standing at my back door, turning to chat with my kids for a second in the kitchen, and I turn back and there’s a package delivered to my deck behind me , and I don’t know how it got there.”

During an event today, the company’s CEO, Keller Cliffton, said that the goal for this new home delivery system is to have the item arrive in a way that feels “like teleportation.”

For scale, the droid with Keller Cliffton (left) and Keenan Wyrobek. Zip line

The way the new airborne system works is a bit like a flying mechanical turducken – that infamous culinary creation that involves a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. In this case, the package being delivered (the transport chicken) is inside the droid unit (the duck), which is nested within the aircraft itself (the turkey).

The new aircraft has four small rotors and a propeller at the back that can be tilted to help it hover. The aircraft makes the delivery from about 300 feet, hovering over the target area. The droid is then lowered on a tether to, say, a picnic table. “It lands very quickly — for a second or two,” says Mardall. During this brief landing, the doors in the droid’s belly open to deposit the package.

After the delivery, the droid returns to the main drone, which is waiting above, and the aircraft then continues its journey. The aspect of this new approach designed to allow for better accuracy, even during windy days, are the thrusters on the droid itself. Those thrusters — an electric fan on the back and two additional fans in other locations — can blow air to help the mini drone, which Mardall says is about the size of a gym bag, maneuver.

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“When [it’s] going down on the winch, if it’s windy, we need to have a system to control the position of that droid,” he says. That’s where the three thrusters come into play. “These promoters mean that Zip [the drone mothership above] he just carries the weight, he doesn’t have to put in the position.”

He adds that because the main drone remains 300 feet above the target, the entire system is quiet. “This thing is barely audible – it sounds like leaves rustling in the trees,” he says.

Aviation engineering usually involves compromises, and this new system is no exception. Their Gen-one drones, which look like small airplanes with a wing, a V-shaped tail and propellers on the back, have a range of about 50 miles. The new aircraft have the ability to hover and bring down a droid, but unlike their predecessors, they have a range of about 10 miles out and 10 miles back to drop off an object and then return from the same place it was launched. Or, if the new drone is to travel one-way, traveling to a location where it can land and then charge, the range is 24 miles. “You can’t fool the physics here – when you have to swing, swinging is more energetically expensive,” he says.

The packages this new system can carry can weigh between 6 and 8 kilograms. Mardall says this year they will test the new system in California, and 2024 will see “a pilot delivery to real customers.” They’re aiming for it to be able to offer items like on-demand meals, meaning a Sweetgreen salad could theoretically be droid-arrived to a picnic table in someone’s backyard at some point in the future. The company also revealed a logistics system that can be built into the side of a building, allowing drones to dock on the outside and the droid to enter and exit through a small door for loading.

Zipline isn’t alone in the sky delivery market. A competitor, Wing—from Google’s parent company Alphabet—has just announced a new AutoLoader system and what they call the Wing Delivery Network. Wing drones also use a tether to load and deliver the package, but they don’t have droids.

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