Can retail drones deliver the goods?

03 December 2019. Published by Jon Bartley, Partner

A recent flurry of patent registrations provides an insight into how this futuristic technology could soon become a reality for consumers.

2019 has seen a number of leading tech businesses unveil their plans for delivery drones. In June, Amazon announced that they intended to launch their product delivery drone within a few months. In October, Alphabet's subsidiary Wing began to operate the first commercial drone delivery service in the United States. More recently still, Uber released details of its plans to launch drones as part of its food delivery service.

There are a number of advantages associated with delivery drones:

  • they are considered more environmentally sustainable than traditional road-based delivery methods;
  • delivery times can be much shorter; and
  • drones are able to reach some areas which are not otherwise accessible for deliveries.

However, certain commentators have raised questions as to whether drones will be suitable for densely populated urban areas. Businesses that are developing drones have had to grapple with design challenges including battery-life, collision prevention, drop-off methods and privacy concerns.

In many jurisdictions (including England & Wales) there is also the added hurdle of satisfying the regulator. Commercial drone operators need to ensure that they have adequate insurance and have obtained permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

From 30 November 2019 operators must also register and label their drones, pay a £9 annual subscription per drone and (unless they are commercial operators with an existing CAA permission) have passed an online exam, which tests their knowledge of safety requirements.

Patents for drone developments

US patents prevent other businesses from exploiting a registered invention for a period of 20 years from the filing date. The detailed drawings submitted as part of the applications provide an indication of how drone developers are looking to address certain challenges.


The US patent registered by Amazon, includes a design with multiple switchable components. These pieces comprise a robotic arm, a speaker, a light, an imaging device and a communications device (amongst others). A component-based approach would allow faulty or broken parts to be swapped out efficiently for replacement versions and enable the drone to function in a variety of manners.


Walmart's US patent filings demonstrate a novel approach to the final part of the delivery – the drop-off. Their first patent protects a design whereby the drone electronically connects to a panel outside of a building. This connection opens up a hatch which the package is dropped into, and the package will then pass through into the building. Their second patent offers a simpler mechanism, whereby the parcel is dropped into a net on the outside of the building and the drop-off is electronically registered. 

What next?

With tech companies amongst the first to enter the market, it will be interesting to see whether traditional retailers respond by launching their own services (as Walmart appears to be doing), or by using third-party drone delivery services (as Walgreens has done by engaging Wing). The registration of these patents shows us that innovation is thriving in this industry and that whilst it faces challenges, resources are being committed to developing technical solutions.  

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