Potential risks and dangers in drone delivery

From the inspection of oil pipelines to crops, piloted and autonomous drones are finding applications across industries. In last-mile delivery, in particular, drones provide immense value by significantly reducing the cost, time, and energy consumption to make a delivery.

Beyond the benefits of a delivery drone, however, there exist public concerns that these devices might pose more potential risks than the current truck and hand delivery approach, including drone failure, causing damage to property and injury to people.

A commercial drone has thousands of components and millions of lines of software. Nearly any element failure can cause the entire system to fail, resulting in discontinuity of controlled flight or complete loss of the delivery vehicle. A delivery drone, capable of flying a few miles even with relatively small packages has sufficient mass and power that it could seriously injure someone with its propeller blades or through an impact. As the weight goes up, a fast-moving drone becomes more dangerous.

Failures can occur due to many different reasons. One broad source of failure includes defects related to components or assembly that manifest into a failure during the flight. Another source is the system’s interaction with the environment. The effects of salt fog, wind, radiation, and the many weather stresses, along with dust, debris, insects, animals, etc., all impact and eventually degrade system performance.

A third source of technology-based failures comes from a lack of sufficient understanding of the operating stresses placed on the system. The operating team may have data about a variety of environmental conditions, such as the change of temperature and humidity, and distances of the daily delivery schedule. Yet, the data is only an estimation that often lacks details to enable full characterization and assessment of reliability performance.

To operate drones safely, one needs to consider many factors such as redundant sensors, logic controllers, and a ‘reserve tank’ battery capacity, and each of them adds complexity, weight, and cost to the device.

Below, we list some of the situations that might cause potential risks and dangers in drone delivery.

  • Gearbox, motor, or battery failure (or battery exhaustion) could cause the drone to drop from the sky, possibly striking someone.
  • Sensor failure or malfunction could cause erratic or blind flight, again leading to the drones possibly striking someone. 
  • The drones can become an obstacle in an already crowded airspace. 
  • A strike or impact from a tree, a power line, a bird, or a shotgun blast), damaging one or more subsystems
  • Drones could strike wildlife that it may not have the ability to detect or avoid. 
  • Drones may be unable to navigate to its destination, delaying delivery. 
  • Drones might deliver the package to the wrong address.
  • Drones need to invariable fly into unusual situations, be it a swarm of bees, bird attacks, lightning strikes, or signal jammers.
  • Drones are prone to be hacked or hijacked by malicious attacks, which can disrupt control.
  • Every drone will have to deal with extreme weather at one time or another.
  • Conditions ranging from wind to rain, snow, hail, extreme heat or extreme cold, have an impact on the safety of the drone as well as cargo.
  • Flying drones with cameras, scanners, and sensors raises privacy concerns.
  • Drones can run the risk of receiving unwanted packages and solicitations.

Do you want to read about the pros and cons of autonomous drone delivery? Don’t miss this article.

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