Beyond the technical and social issues with drone delivery, there are real questions about whether it would actually be an efficient and cost-effective way of moving stuff around urban environments. A significant problem with delivery drones right now is that they’re generally not much use if you want to send something relatively heavy very far away, especially if you want them to also be able to make pinpoint deliveries throughout cities safely. The problem is that drones run on batteries, which substantially limit their range, especially once you load them up with cargo.
One approach to try to offset the low range of delivery drones by flying them from vehicles that can serve as base stations. This idea has been tested by companies like Mercedes-Benz and Matternet, and also by UPS and Workhorse, among others. Now here’s another idea: Instead of deploying a fleet of private vans, you could rely on a vast network of vehicles that’s already on the road: public buses. In a paper presented at ICRA this month, researchers from Stanford’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory and Autonomous Systems Lab have explored how a transit-based delivery drone system might work, and it turns out that it might work really well—in cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., hitchhiking on buses could potentially help drones more than quadruple their package delivery range.