The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally established rules to govern the use of unmanned aircraft systems (drones) for commercial use in the U.S. in June. Google and Amazon, which have each shown off prototypes for such purposes but have been waiting on clarification from the government, took notice—as did foodservice companies hoping to employ an army of drones for food delivery.
The rules make large-scale food delivery with drones almost impossible. Such commercial uses are limited to situations where the pilot is within view of the drone at all times, and the drone cannot fly over anyone not involved in the transaction, according to the FAA.
But that isn’t stopping restaurant brands from designing other innovative services to expedite delivery. From robots to self-driving cars, technology is bringing the business of food delivery into the 21st century.
No better example of this can be found than Domino’s U.S. branch, which has historically shown a penchant to adopt technology quickly and to great effect.
In October 2015, Domino’s unveiled a new fleet of state-of-the-art delivery vehicles. The DXP delivery vehicle is specialized for pizza delivery purposes, complete with a warming oven, a two-phase light atop the car that indicates when it is out on a delivery, enough storage capacity to hold a whopping 80 pizzas, and additional storage to easily hold menu items like salads, soda, and napkins.
Joe Jordan, Domino’s chief marketing officer, says the DXP is another extension of Domino’s “fanaticism” for pizza and the delivery business. The brand is in the process of rolling out an additional 58 DXPs to 23 U.S. markets, bringing the total number in operation to 155.
“There’s all of these dedicated vehicles for different purposes, whether it’s the mail truck, the FedEx truck, or the milk truck,” Jordan says. “We’re the pizza delivery experts, the largest pizza company in the world, so … why shouldn’t there be a pizza delivery car?”
Jordan says Domino’s U.S. continues to evaluate other tech-based strategies for improving on the pain points customers typically experience with food delivery. He says the brand is watching the development of regulations for drones in the U.S., but could not speak to any plans yet to use them to deliver pizza.
Across the pond, Domino’s U.K. has experimented with what it calls the “Domicopter” for promotional purposes, and it seems to have worked: The airborne pizza-delivery drone made global headlines in 2013. Meanwhile, Domino’s in Australia is testing its own pizza delivery robot—this one a ground-based machine called “DRU” (Domino’s Robotic Unit). It uses technology similar to that of self-driving cars to pilot itself safely on roadways, with the ability to drive up to 12 miles an hour.
“We have one [dru] prototype in Australia at the moment, and he does plenty of customer deliveries as part of trials and feedback,” says Domino’s Australia communications manager Tracy Llewelyn. “He is very well received by customers.”
DRU, which according to online tech publication Engadget could see major commercial use on roadways in Australia in two years or so, has similar features to a robot that Estonian startup Starship Technologies is developing.
Starship—the brainchild of Skype cofounders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis—has created what its marketing and communications manager, Henry Harris-Burland, calls “the world’s first commercially available autonomous delivery robot.”
Weighing in at about 90 pounds, Starship’s robot boasts nine cameras, six wheels, two-way audio, obstacle detection, computer vision to navigate autonomously, and ultrasonic sensors. It can carry about 20 pounds in a locked compartment while driving four miles per hour on sidewalks.
The idea behind Starship’s robot is simple: People order food or groceries via an app, and then they track the robot’s progress through the app as it delivers the items.
Harris-Burland says Starship is partnering with commercial firms—including food delivery businesses—to test the concept further, even though the robot has already achieved “4,000 miles of testing” and come into contact with more than 400,000 people. The next step will be commercial deployment, but it’s unclear exactly when or in which countries. Harris-Burland did add that Starship has been testing the robot in some U.S. cities.
Still, there’s more to delivery innovation than robots. Galley, a meal-delivery service in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, is using advanced data analysis to make delivery more cost-efficient, improve delivery times, and find neighborhoods where the delivery service could expand, says Andy Myer, a spokesman for Galley.
The team combines real-time variables including meal availability, customers’ addresses, and traffic to determine the number of drivers and the best routes.
Galley also uses algorithms to predict customer demand based on the mix of meals and prices on its daily menu, the time and day of the week, and even the weather. Despite the tech innovation, Myer says Galley’s focus is still on the human-to-human interaction that is central to the delivery equation.
“It’s really easy to get wrapped up in all of the potential options out there for automation around delivery,” Myer says. “But at the end of the day, a big part of the Galley experience is customer service ... and it’s pretty hard to make a driverless car understand that a customer has had a tough day and that we need to go the extra mile to make their night special.”