Leonid Bershidsky: Drones may serve medicine,not pizza

Germany's Deutsche Post DHL is poised to win bragging rights for introducing the world's first scheduled delivery service using drones, beating Amazon, Google or any of the smaller U.S. services working on similar projects. Europe is triumphing after solving two essential questions about drones: finding somewhere that unmanned aerial vehicles offer an unbeatable advantage, and convincing regulators to sanction their flights.

DHL will deliver medicines to the North Sea island of Juist from Norden Harbor. Currently, a single daily ferry sailing at high tide connects the island's population of 1,500 to the mainland. It's a 90-minute voyage, compared with a seven-minute journey by Cessna, but bad weather frequently halts local flights. The Parcelcopter drone maker, Microdrones, has modified its aircraft to withstand North Sea winds.


The cooperation between the German air traffic control service, the Federal Ministry of Transport, several municipalities and a national park to approve the field trials makes sense. Medicine is often needed urgently, and supply can't be left to the mercy of tides or storms. The island is relatively free of buildings, it has almost no cars (even the police use bicycles), and there is plenty of room for the Parcelcopters to land. Each drone flight will have to be registered.

A more frivolous project, involving, say, pizza or gadget delivery, would have been doomed. The risk-reward ratio of pizza delivery by drone is ridiculously high. What if the drone crashes into something — a bird, another drone, an electrical wire — plummets to the ground and hurts someone? How much hotter would your pepperoni be than if it came by scooter? As for merchandise from Amazon, it's hard to argue customers cannot wait an extra day for regular delivery services.

QuiQui, the San Francisco drone start-up, has also identified pharmaceuticals as a suitable case for drone treatment. "They have a high dollar per gram value, you often get the same over and over and over, and if it falls on you from 30, 40, 50 feet, a small bottle of Advil is not going to hurt you," QuiQui founder Josh Ziering explained to CNN in June. Ziering's planned delivery area, though, covers San Francisco's Mission District, meaning the drones would have to fly among buildings delivering item its clients can walk to the pharmacy to collect. It doesn't make as much sense to me as DHL's Juist project.

While a judge ruled in March that the Federal Aviation Administration can't ban commercial drones, the FAA in June tried to do just that with its interpretation of model aircraft legislation, which covers drones. The Academy of Model Aeronautics spearheaded a campaign, laying out its detailed arguments during a public debate, which the FAA extended until Sept. 23 at the academy's request. As well as banning drones from flying within 500 feet of buildings, cars or people, the suggested FAA rules include a ban on any kind of monetary compensation for flying drones, ruling out any attempts to establish delivery businesses.

The debate elicited more than 32,000 comments. The FAA may or may not change its interpretation of the law based on these comments, but it doesn't appear to be ready to open the skies to drone delivery projects, instead chasing down any commercial drone use it detects. Technology companies have the option to ignore the regulator, as the Uber taxi service has done in a number of cities, but that would be almost as risky a proposition as flying thousands of drones through the streets of New York.

While one could accuse the U.S. regulators of being backward, I sympathize with their desire to study drone use on a case-by-case basis. Drones can be a danger and a nuisance. The German who crashed his drone into a lake in Yellowstone National Park in July deserved his $1,600 fine and year-long ban from Yellowstone. What, however, if it had been a delivery company operating in Manhattan?

To make drone delivery an accepted practice, the pioneers need to come up with uses that aren't superfluous or gimmicky. Carrying medicine to people in isolated, hard-to-reach communities is a great opening gambit. The FAA would probably echo German regulators in accepting such projects as legitimate, as it has already done with some agricultural drone projects. Extending drone use from there depends on whether they can really add value, rather than just making life easier for the lazy.

Leonid Bershidsky is a contributor to Bloomberg View.