Ground Drones Will Beat Air Drones

Betting on Starship Technologies' ground game against Amazon.com's aerial enterprise.



Skype co-founders are launching a drone delivery service in the U.K. called Starship Technologies soon. The drones are essentially cute six-wheeled robot grocery carts and can carry around 20 pounds of stuff. The semi-autonomous drones are wirelessly monitored by humans to resolve any navigation issues and to prevent attempts at interference or theft. The drones travel at 4 mph overland and would be positioned in urban areas to deliver packages within 5 to 30 minutes of being summoned.

The drones are locked and can only be opened by recipients who have the proper app on their phones. The app also allows customers to track the drones. The company claims that the drones will be 10 to 15 times cheaper than current cost of last mile delivery services, e.g., couriers.

Amazon has kindled a lot of excitement with its proposal for Air Prime delivery services using 55 pound unmanned aerial drones that can fly no higher than 400 feet and carry packages weighing under 5 pounds. It too promises deliveries within 30 minutes. "One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road," predicts the company. Perhaps.


At least for the time being, ground drones likely to be much more useful since they will use less energy and can carry considerably more. They will also avoid the much of the regulatory hell that aerial drone delivery companies will have to navigate.

But ultimately, who needs deliveries when folks can print-out what they want at home?

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  1. But are they paid a living wage?

  2. Prevent theft? Can it fight back? Or scream for help?

    How about the simple beauty of kicking the thing over and watching its wheels spin in a feeble attempt to save itself?

    1. Are you referring to drones? Or are you referring to Epi’s mom?

    2. I believe it’s equipped with a laser cannon.

      1. Are you referring to drones? Or are you referring to Epi’s mom?

    3. These are going to become a fav of dogs, mailman falls to 2nd place.

    4. S: Has nine cameras to photograph thieves and harassers and operators can summon the police. Since there is no suggestion that the company might arm the vehicles, that’s about what regular humans can do today when assaulted.

      BTW, have you read Hertling’s The Last Firewall – chapter 2 has a scene in which teen thugs assault a perfectly harmless scavenger bot.

      1. I can foresee this happening so frequently that the cops stop responding to calls from drones. No person is being harmed, and what, do you expect them to work hard?

      2. All I care about is getting my package, Ron. When am I getting my package?

        1. I got your package right here! [makes rude gesture]

      3. I don’t think the cameras are going to be much help against simple vandals. A pulled-up shirt collar defeats them.

        I’m not against delivery drones, I just think human perversity isn’t going to let them be cost effective.

        1. Yeah, but the ones on the ground have a much greater risk factor. Any street punk can attack one just for mischief. You have a drone flying out of reach, it has a much lower risk factor until it actually lands to deliver the package.

          Again, I’m going with the air drones to win this battle, for several reasons.

          1. Yeah, I see the aerial drones being safer in transit, but I do wonder about aerial delivery in high-density places, like apartments or condos. Landing on a roof or in a patio area means that packages with have to be far more weatherproof and the chance for theft would go up as those areas might (or maybe should) have less foot traffic than a mail area in a building.

            1. The chance for theft won’t change much though. I get packages left on my doorstep all of the time.

              1. No one wants your moldy old dildos you buy from estate auctions, Hyperion.

                1. Hey, those are vintage historical dildos!

                  1. “I thought Grandma was buried with this!”

                    1. “She WAS.”

                    2. +1 original packaging

          2. How about sewer drones?

        2. Wait, are…are you saying that people are going to try to have sex with the drones?

          1. Well, the sexy ones at least. I mean look at that cute little herbie-derby boy in the pic…

  3. Meh. I’m betting on the air drones. Ground drones too slow and will have to deal with navigable terrain, which will slow them down further.

    1. I can see them work in downtown business districts. Instead of FEDEX & UPS trucks trying to pick their way through traffic, you can send a ground drone along the sidewalk. Those kinds of areas are also likely where you’ll have more problems with aerial drones.

      I don’t really see ground drones bringing a couple of books to one house out in the ‘burbs.

      1. All those Jimmy Johns delivery guys bombing around office districts on their bikes are gonna be PISSED.

      2. Yeah, but will the little ground drones come to a screeching halt in the middle of the street in front of their delivery address? Who will I honk at and shake my fist at if there’s no guy in a brown shirt to jump out and deliver the package, with an “it’s ok to block traffic, my flashers are on” look on his face?

        You know who else wore brown shirts…

        1. What can the Sturm Abteilung do for you?

    2. Nope. You are going to see a driverless delivery truck go to a central location to a swath of deliveries, then disgorge a small swarm of these for the walk-up and deliver, and then pick them all back up before any worm-sign appears.

  4. “At least for the time being, ground drones likely to be much more useful since they will use less energy and can carry considerably more. They will also avoid the much of the regulatory hell that aerial drone delivery companies will have to navigate.”

    Typical libertarian, privileging base, economic considerations over the more important issue of how awesome flying drone deliveries would be.

    This is why there are no mad scientist libertarians.

    1. “They will also avoid the much of the regulatory hell that aerial drone delivery companies will have to navigate.”

      Citation needed.

    2. What? … I thought all libertarians are mad scientists? You mean… you guys are not trying to build an evil robot army to take over the world? Now I feel so alone again…

      1. If you are willing to pay for the work I will get right on it. I have the experience and can put together a small team. Military/aerospace experience.

        1. Shit, my venture capital is very low right now. I’ll make you the woodchipper czar after the take over!

          1. I would fund a kickstarter for someone who builds a drone woodchipper.

  5. I find it tough to bet against Bezos. He has been a game changer in the past. I look forward to have Air Prime deliver me a metal sintering 3D printer someday.

    1. Amazon Rocket will bring you a new TV fresh from the assembly line in China in 90 minutes!

      1. Meh to the tv. I want one for this

      2. I don’t even care how it gets here as long as it gets here and fast. Which is why I’m a Prime customer.

  6. All the excess people
    where do they all come from?
    All the excess people
    where do they all belong?

    Ah, look at all the excess people.

    1. Great now all I hear in my head is:

      All the homely people
      Why are they from Britain
      All the homely people
      Why are they in London

  7. But who wins in a foot race? Superman or the Flash?

      1. Flash is limited by relativity.

    1. Wolverine

    2. Superman.

      Who flies around the world backwards to travel back in time to so far before the race starts that as soon as the starter gun goes off he’s already at the finish line.

      1. The Flash can also time travel.

  8. These job-killing drones must be banned! Think of the couriers!

    1. You mean those assholes who crinkled up my last issue of Reason magazine when putting it in the box? Bring on the job killing drones!

  9. The thing I hate most in the world is the income tax.

    In the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, I was hoping that an alliance between capitalists and legitimate (non watermelon) environmentalists might bring in a carbon sales tax to replace–REPLACE–the income tax. Unfortunately, the environmentalist movement has been so overpowered by socialists, they’d rather see the environment go to hell than give up the ability to redistribute other people’s incomes.

    Plan B?

    Labor is under assault, and the income tax artificially inflates the cost of labor–makes it less competitive vis a vis robots. At a time when machines are poised to replace human labor in so many fundamental ways, it is absurd that our tax system is designed to artificially inflate the cost of labor. The minimum wage is bad enough–artificially inflating the cost of paying people their take home pay, artificially inflating the cost of hiring unemployed workers–all through the income tax? That’s morally unconscionable.

    We need to slash income taxes right away. Start with the people at the bottom of the income scale if need be, but the income tax is the single most destructive force for unskilled jobs in our society. . . . and for what benefit? So that we can continue to provide relatively unproductive government bureaucrats with outrageous retirement benefits?

    1. I think the property tax is more evil than income tax. I don’t care if that’s at a local level and fucking ROADS AND BRIDGES!

      My reasoning is because it means that the government actually owns all property in the US and you are merely renting it.

      1. The fact that I have to report every penny I earn to the government or face criminal prosecution is also evil. Fourth Amendment violation? Guilty until proven innocent?

        The idea that I owe you money because I I I earned it is also evil.

        I also think the income tax is more destructive than the property tax because it does things like actively discourage companies from hiring unemployed people during recessions.

        You’re out looking for a job, desperate to make a house payment, whatever, and the government is forcing companies to artificially pay you a 20% premium over your take home pay–just so you can afford to pay your income tax.

        That’s fuckin’ mean as hell.

        So is artificially inflating the cost of unskilled labor with an income tax even while machines are threatening to replace labor on a cost basis.

        1. The income tax is second only to the drug war in eviscerating the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Self-incrimination? What?

          1. I think the income tax is worse.

            It’s just that people have gotten used to having to report every single penny they make and all their expenses, too.

            The Sixteenth Amendment is even an abomination to God.


            1. THE+ IRS = THEIRS

        2. I’m all for a flat consumption tax, and elimination of income tax. But I want property tax ended as well. Just replace it with a one time tax on the property of 15% or so and that’s it. I pay off my property, I fucking own it.

          1. But, but, but how will the government pay for the schools? Why do you hate the children?!?!?

            1. ROADZ!!! SOMALIA!!! HERPADERP!

          2. aka sales tax

    2. So that we can continue to provide relatively unproductive government bureaucrats with outrageous early retirement benefits?

      Yes. From each against their will, to those who think they need.

    3. I think you discount the destructive power of mandatory benefits and minimum wage. At the bottom of the scale income and payroll taxes add about a 20% premium to employment. Providing healthcare for the 30th hour worked could be an 80% premium in low-skill jobs.

      1. I’m against that shit, too.

    4. Employment taxes, mandatory benefits, and minimum wage are killing jobs more than the income tax. The cost to an employer of hiring an employee is insane.

      1. I’m not only against the income tax because it artificially inflates the cost of labor. That’s just the relevant point in this thread.

        Income taxes on the wealthy also have a disastrous effect.

  10. “The company claims that the drones will be 10 to 15 times cheaper than current cost of last mile delivery services, e.g., couriers.”

    When I lived in Mexico, one of the things I was struck by was the fact that everyone–and I mean everyone–delivers to your home. There isn’t anything you can buy that you can’t have delivered for a minimal fee.

    In Merida, the KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, they all deliver. Every one of those fast food franchises have fleets of guys on mopeds with hotboxes on the back of the mopeds.

    Why don’t they do that here in the U.S.?

    It’s because the labor is too expensive here in the U.S.

    I bet those ground drones aren’t as competitive against Mexicans on mopeds.

    1. Yeah, but those moped Mexicans are drug dealers, rapists… some, i assume, are good people.

    2. Cheap labor and quality of life are closely associated. Especially these days, when kids keep living with their parents long after they’ve graduated from high school, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have the same benefits of cheap labor. And I guess these machines are going to bring us that quality of life eventually. It just won’t necessarily translate into jobs.

      I remember reading something by . . . I want to say it was Galbraith. He was writing something about how a leisure class was the inevitable future of automation. That in our current understanding, such people are seen as superfluous or parasites, but that as automation continues to replace human labor, we’re ultimately destined to see productivity from people as an embarrassment. In such a world, the suggestion was that those of us who still strive to be productive will be psychiatric cases.

      I guess I’m afraid he might be right.

      I see people without purpose or function as . . . dead weight. If unskilled labor were completely superfluous, I’m not sure that would be paradise. As they came to make up more and more of our society, they would become like a leisure class–but it’s a self-sustaining leisure class of welfare queens. I guess that’s my question: What happens if automation replaces labor to the point that a lack of effort no longer has negative consequences?

      Living in that world, would drive me insane.

      1. Similar thoughts were expressed at the beginning of the industrial age – that men working on assembly lines could be thinking great thoughts while doing mindless labor, and then go home at night and read classics, learn languages, create music or art…

        Turns out all they want is a six pack, a pizza and some professional wrestling on TV..

        1. And what happens if and when automation makes unskilled labor so superfluous that drinking six packs, eating pizza, and watching shit on TV–all day, every day–no longer has any negative consequences?

          What if automation, technology, and productivity gains made caring for the poor and lazy practically effortless?

          I’m a dangerous nutjob in that society. All of my impulses are suddenly terribly misguided.

      2. “What happens if automation replaces labor to the point that a lack of effort no longer has negative consequences?”

        Yeah, I know there are people who are insulated from the consequences of their lack of productivity now. That’s not what I’m talking about.

        Greece imploded because as the cumulative consequence of myriad unproductive behavior.

        I’m not talking bout being insulated from negative consequences. In a world where there are no negative consequences for being unproductive exist–cumulative, ignored, or other negative consequences–then I’m an obsessive-compulsive, pointlessly productive neurotic. Workaholics are people who miss out on enjoying the fruits of their labor. What do you call people who are needlessly productive? Maybe our society hasn’t invented that neurosis yet, but maybe it’s comin’.

        1. I’m like a workaholic, but for booze.

      3. I would think that there are a large number of people on this planet who would do things and remain “productive”, simply devoting time to other pursuits. Sure, there will always be leeches, but I can easily see creative people being able to produce even more without the constant drive to stay ahead of the state.

        In other words, if I don’t have to hunt my food, I have more time to spend building and so on.

    3. Its the same reason why you can’t even get your groceries bagged in most places in Western Europe.

  11. Air drones may be able to cause a lot of destruction and be a crucial part of winning some battles, but ultimately it will take ground drones for Amazon to hold their conquered territory.

    1. “Any treads on the ground will be inserted in a purely advisory capacity.”

  12. “The use of flying drones, for all their well-documented virtues (amazing aerial photography, for one), is a fraught topic. News reports carry tales of drones flying too close to commercial airliners, drones spying into bedroom windows and drones carrying ? and firing ? handguns. And as legislation managing their civilian use tightens, there seems little doubt that public contempt for the machines is coming to a head.”
    Meet Transwheel, Self-Balancing Parcel-Delivery Drone

    1. I know full well that when someone says “drone” they really mean any sort of aircraft without an onboard pilot. But it still grates on my nerves that “remotely piloted aircraft” are conflated with “drones.” One is a guy on the ground flying his model around the park, or a guy in a trailer shooting a hellfire at somebody who happened to be in the wrong spot in Paki-gani-stan. The other is an autonomous vehicle.

      Pretty soon we’ll start hearing about a movement to ban drones that have more than seven propellers, or that have retractable landing gear, not to mention common-sense regulations like background checks and waiting periods. For the children.

      1. The difference between the two is not a sharp line in practice.

        Most UAVs can do some things autonomously and require (or allow) a remote operator for others.

        A UAV on a mission might require an operator for take-off, fly autonomously to its mission area, patrol the mission area on its own with a remote operator monitoring the sensors, ready to intervene and issue orders to the UAV or take direct control as the situation dictates, then the UAV flies itself back home where the remote operate takes control and lands it.

        1. Even civilian stuff is a mixture where the RO tells the drone where to go and the drone takes itself there. Either on the scale of moving from waypoint to waypoint or fine control where the operator tells the drone to bank 30 degrees and turn – the RO isn’t directly operating the control surfaces, even there he’s just telling the UAV what he wants it to do and the UAV is responding appropriately.

  13. Dude, I never even thought about it like that before, it makes no sense. WOw.


  14. A new market for the Segway?

  15. Go big or go home:


    While perhaps not a fully autonomous helicopter initially – it’s good to see these back in production.

    The opportunity cost benefits of running these vs manned supply helos in Afghanistan was astronomical.

  16. If the ground drones require the purchaser to have use an “phone app” then they are requiring you to run nonfree software — software that tramples your freedom. This includes the app, and the system it runs on. See http://gnu.org/philosophy/free…..rtant.html for why that is bad.

    I will say “no thanks” to that delivery service.

    I buy products in only physical stores, and pay only with cash.

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