The concept of delivering food, packaged goods and medical supplies to consumers by drone did not begin with COVID-19. But the pandemic has added urgency to the race, as companies such as Zipline, Wing Aviation, Amazon Prime Air and UPS Flight Forward attempt to mobilize networks of drones to deliver packages safely and quickly to consumers and commercial offices.
Putting the Customer First
Unfortunately, these companies plan to deliver time-sensitive packages to the ground outside a home or business, leaving them vulnerable to “porch pirates,” inclement weather or curious pets.
Enter the smart drone mailbox: a technology-enabled container that opens, receives and stores packages in a safe, secure, climate-controlled box accessible only by a homeowner or business owner. It offers a potential solution to the more than 1.7 million packages lost or stolen in the U.S. daily, as CNBC reports.
“The drone companies have been focused largely on all the innovative features of their drones, but if that innovation doesn’t create a safe, secure and convenient experience for consumers, it will never be adopted,” Ryan Walsh, CEO and co-founder of Chicago-based startup Valqari, a developer of smart drone mailboxes, said in an interview with Now.
However, Walsh and Valqari are not alone in recognizing an opportunity to make drone delivery a safe, convenient and preferred service by consumers.
“I believe that when one person has an idea, 10 others have the same idea at the same time,” Dan O’Toole, CEO for Indianapolis-based DRONEDEK, another competitor in the smart drone mailbox space, told Now.
Precision Made Easy
Both Valqari and DRONEDEK are in the early stages of developing their mailbox concepts; Valqari is already producing units while DRONEDEK is working to complete its first functional prototype. The basic operating principles of their mailboxes are quite similar. Pending broader deployment of drone delivery networks, neither company expects smart drone mailboxes to become commonplace just yet.
When a customer orders a delivery by drone, the package is loaded into a drone-compatible container, then flown to the customer location guided by GPS coordinates. Once the drone is within approximately 100 feet of the mailbox, it reverts to a vision-based landing system, then begins an authentication process with the smart drone mailbox. This process verifies that it’s the right drone delivering the right package to the right mailbox.
When the authentication process is complete, the drone lands on the mailbox, the mailbox opens its door, and the package is delivered. The drone then sends a notification of the delivery to both the shipper and the recipient to let them know that the smart drone mailbox has taken digital custody of the shipment and that it’s now available for the recipient to pick up at their convenience. The recipient communicates with the smart drone mailbox via a phone-based app.
“One of the great things about a smart drone delivery mailbox is that you don’t have to leave work and stand in your front yard to receive a package,” said Walsh. “Drones are designed to provide a convenience for us, not an inconvenience.”
And yes, he adds, smart drone mailboxes are designed to be “drone agnostic” and compatible with conventional delivery services. The same app that will allow a consumer to open the smart drone mailbox to retrieve a package will also allow a FedEx driver, a U.S. Postal Service employee or even an Amazon Prime driver to open the mailbox to deliver a package.
Reinventing the Mailbox
“The mailbox has not been disrupted since 1858 (when the U.S. Postal Service was launched),” said O’Toole. “Between smart cars, smart phones and smart houses, it’s time for the mailbox to catch up.”
To that end, O’Toole plans to give each DRONEDEK a patented, climate-controlled cargo area that could be set digitally by a shipping organization.
O’Toole is also thinking about how to streamline the logistics of customer returns. Future versions of DRONEDEK, he believes, could include a scale (to weigh packages), a printer (to address packages) and software to calculate shipping charges and bill the customer directly.
Adapting to a “New Normal”
While customer convenience is important, public concern over the spread of COVID-19 has become a more significant factor in the design and development schedule of smart drone mailboxes.
“We feel that COVID-19 has accelerated drone delivery by 10 years,” said O’Toole. “It’s had a huge impact on people who’ve been resistant to adopting new technology and relying on the Internet for goods and services.”
In a nod to concerns about potential COVID-19 contamination of package surfaces, both Valqari and DRONEDEK are considering including an ultraviolet package sterilization feature in their mailboxes.
Meeting Multi-User Demand
The types of smart drone mailboxes being developed also reflect the nascent market for such units. Valqari, for example, is focusing its early efforts on multi-user community boxes. These boxes could be located on, say, a hospital campus or within a village where it could serve many customers and handle multiple inbound and outbound package deliveries. Packages for different customers would be automatically sorted, stored and managed within separate internal compartments.
“One of our biggest concerns is managing the safety needs of both our customers and the drones,” explained Walsh. “We made our commercial unit tall enough, for example, for people to retrieve their packages easily from the station without being able to interfere with drone landing or take-off operations.”
Valqari is also developing a stand-alone residential unit and, eventually, a window-attached unit for high-rise apartments, he added.
For its part, DRONEDEK plans to develop small, medium and large smart drone mailboxes for business owners, a residential box and a multi-family or urban cluster box.
Valqari plans to make its boxes available through subscriptions, lease agreements or as a retail purchase. If you decide to purchase a Valqari unit outright, Walsh says you can expect “pricing in line with any other smart appliance in your house.”
However, both Valqari and DRONEDEK have recognized the need to monetize the “big data” available from a community-based network of electronic sensor stations to help reduce costs of smart drone mailboxes for consumers.
“Every DRONEDEK has the potential to be a weather station,” said O’Toole. “We think we can harvest and sell very localized weather data to the National Weather Service, for example.”
Keeping Life Simple
For all the extra features promised by Valqari and DRONEDEK, the main goal of smart drone mailboxes is to be effectively invisible, to be a non-issue for consumers and business owners alike.
“Our goal is to automate package deliveries for people so that they don’t have to be home or worry about getting home faster because someone might steal their package,” said Walsh. “We want to be that company that allows them to spend more time doing what they love and less time worrying about the logistics of their life.”