Ultra-fast drone delivery promises convenience, but comes at a high cost for workers, the environment, and public space.

2 minute read

October 11, 2021, 12:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Delivery Drone

Slavoljub Pantelic / Shutterstock

Drone delivery promises ultra-fast, convenient delivery of everyday goods right to your door. But there's a darker side, write Michael Richardson, Jake Goldenfein, and Thao Phan. "Drone delivery at scale will transform the skies, change expectations for speedy delivery, and hide the labour that makes it possible."

Wing, an Alphabet-owned delivery company that has made 100,000 deliveries to date in Australia, "operates much like many app delivery platforms. After signing up, customers use the smartphone app to place their orders. Orders are then packed at local base stations and flown to their destinations by Wing’s drones." But questions remain about how the service would operate in more complicated environments than the "clear and uncomplicated airspace" and "flat, regular urban environment" of its test sites, Canberra and Logan. Additionally, "automated" tech obscures the hidden human cost.

In the same way that Amazon's private delivery services created higher demand for ultra-fast package delivery, the "unbelievably fast" delivery times promised by Wing shifts customer expectations for other delivery services. "While Wing’s drones are autonomous, the service still relies on human labour. Pilots monitor flight paths, packers parcel up the products, and maintenance staff take care of the hardware and software. All of these workers must perform to satisfy the 10 minute delivery time." These "punishing delivery times," the authors argue, "can be dangerous for worker safety and devastating for morale."

In addition to the harm caused to workers, "drone delivery may also have hidden environmental costs:" lithium mining for batteries, energy consumption for data centers, more packaging and waste, and potential risks to birds and habitats. Moreover, "[d]rone delivery risks privatising a new layer of that common space, and handing it over to Alphabet and others." Australia–and other countries–would have to change their regulations regarding drones and create new digital infrastructures, a step that Alphabet is heavily involved in. "While city skies crowded with delivery drones might be far away, the groundwork is being laid right now. Communities, businesses and workers need to be a much bigger part of the process of deciding if they want that future."

Monday, October 4, 2021 in The Conversation

Aerial view of homes on green hillsides in Daly City, California.

Depopulation Patterns Get Weird

A recent ranking of “declining” cities heavily features some of the most expensive cities in the country — including New York City and a half-dozen in the San Francisco Bay Area.

April 10, 2024 - California Planning & Development Report

Close-up of maroon California 'Clean Air Vehicle' carpool lane access sticker on the back bumper of a silver Tesla vehicle.

California EV Owners To Lose Carpool Lane Privilege

A program that began in 1999 to encourage more electric car ownership is set to expire next year without Congressional and state action.

April 2, 2024 - San Francisco Chronicle

Aerial view of Oakland, California with bay in background

California Exodus: Population Drops Below 39 Million

Never mind the 40 million that demographers predicted the Golden State would reach by 2018. The state's population dipped below 39 million to 38.965 million last July, according to Census data released in March, the lowest since 2015.

April 11, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

Google street view of grassy lot next to brick church with elevated freeway on other side in Houston, Texas.

Houston Supportive Housing Development Sparks Debate

Critics say a proposed apartment building would negatively impact the neighborhood’s walkability.

April 12 - Houston Chronicle

Closed black wrought iron gate in front of gated residential community with large palm trees along sides of street.

Friday Funny: Gated Community Doubles Down

The Onion skewers suburbia.

April 12 - The Onion

Aerial view of Chicago with river in foreground.

‘Cut the Tape’ Report Takes Aim at Inefficiencies

A set of recommendations from the Chicago mayor’s office calls for streamlining city processes to stimulate more residential and commercial development.

April 12 - Block Club Chicago

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.