Needed: neighborhood heliports for drone deliveries
For Anna Stolley Persky, a mother of three in Fairfax, Va., at-home delivery of groceries and household goods is a gift from heaven.
Persky, who works from home as a freelance writer, gets weekly delivery from Amazon of everything from clothes to back-to-school items, specialty fresh food from HelloFresh so she can make several meals a week, and grocery staples from Peapod.com.
There’s just one problem: There’s not a lot of space in her 1970s-era split-level rambler to put all those boxes once they’ve arrived on the doorstep.
“Delivery is a nightmare,” she said. “Our house has a tiny split-level foyer, and I don’t have anywhere to put things like a 25-pound bag of kitty litter when Peapod brings it.”
More than 54 million Americans use Amazon Prime in 2016, up from 10 million in 2013, while the number of Americans expected to shop online by 2019 will exceed 240 million. As Americans become more of an all-delivery, all-the-time population, more single-family homeowners are discovering that houses with old-fashioned mail slots and curbside mailboxes simply aren’t set up to handle it.
“So often technology moves ahead and the residential real estate community is playing catch-up,” said Elaine Worzala, the director of the Corky McMillin Center for Real Estate at San Diego State University, which studies real estate trends. “Right now the industry is not set up for this lifestyle.”
Indeed, spokespersons for the American Institute of Architects or the National Association of Home Builders admit they haven’t given much thought to delivery-ready homes. “I am not aware of any members who have been addressing this issue,” said Elizabeth Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based residential building trade group.
Scott Frank, a spokesman with the AIA, said that while the topic is gaining interest among architects, so far there hasn’t been a concerted effort to design homes in delivery-friendly ways. “We need to get with the times,” Frank said.
For others, the fact that the industry is lagging the at-home-delivery trend is not just an inconvenience; it’s a problem that’s inviting crime. About 23 million Americans at one point have reported incidents of package thefts from homes by so-called porch-pirates, according to a study from Austin, Texas–based InsuranceQuotes.com.
“[Thieves] in our neighborhood are following UPS and postal trucks, and they’re waiting for them to drop and then snatch the packages,” said Derek Carmona, a 44-year-old chiropractor in Lakewood, Calif., who recently had a box full of party favors for his son’s baseball championship celebration stolen off his doorstep. He and his neighbors have recently started a watch group on Facebook to post pictures of suspicious vehicles and screen grabs of thieves when doorstep-mounted cameras spot them. “Now, anything I order I have to send to my office,” he said.
Faye Ang, a 48-year-old human resources professional who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., said recently that a $120 case of wine was taken from her porch as thieves know to look for the “21+” and “fragile” labels on such packages that hint at what’s inside. “They can read between the lines and figure out that it’s valuable,” she said.
Ironically, the difficulty single-family homeowners have with the delivery lifestyle has helped make apartment living more attractive as many high-end condominiums and rental buildings are now offering 24/7 concierge services where packages can be dropped off and stored securely, something most single-family homeowners don’t have.
“This on-demand generation is now creating a ‘trickle-down’ amenity that has become so widespread it’s not just for the highest-end buildings anymore,” said Gabby Warshawer, director of research at CityRealty, a Manhattan-based real estate research firm. The firm recently noted that out of nearly 100 new condo developments in the city, more than 80% will offer concierge service, she said.
Seattle-based Amazon, the world’s biggest online retailer, isn’t oblivious to the problem of missed deliveries and stolen packages either. Since 2011, the company has offered its Amazon Locker, which allows Prime customers and others to pick up and drop off packages at locations like 7-Eleven stores, with about 200 such spots nationwide as of November 2015.
Still, long-time Amazon Prime users like 29-year-old Graham Sorkin, who lives in Seattle and is director of business development at Mary’s Medicinals, said that the lockers, while more secure than a front porch, are not always convenient, and often it’s simply easier to use Amazon Prime Now, which offers a smaller selection of products but can often deliver them within an hour.
“If I need a new cheese grater, I’ll just take whatever Amazon users have chosen as the top-rated one,” he said. “If I can have it delivered in a hour, why get off the couch and take an additional 30-minute trip?”
Amazon also is reportedly working with several smart-lock companies, such as San Francisco–based August Home and Columbus, Ohio–based Garageio, to synch its own voice-activated digital assistant Alexa and the Echo home control smart system to be able to unlock front doors or garage doors for deliveries.
But Amazon isn’t the only one trying to fix the problem of the “last 10 feet,” as it’s becoming known in the industry.
Shuai Jiang, a 34-year-old MBA graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, created the uCella, a bolt-on 18-pound box that expands to about 2 feet by 4 feet and can be mounted to a home’s exterior or porch. Once connected to a smartphone app it can send a message and a photo to the homeowner when a package is delivered or a barcode is scanned. The uCella includes a touch screen and an auto-focusing camera. Made in China, it will cost about $250 and be able to hold several packages — out of sight and secured — until the homeowner arrives.
A uCella expandable storage device hangs on a home in California.
Jiang, who’s raised about $1 million for his idea and now has 11 employees in his San Carlos, Calif., warehouse, said the idea came to him in 2014 while he and his wife struggled with handling all the incoming baby supplies that piled up at his door. “After my son was born, we didn’t have time to go to the mall or a grocery store, so we ordered everything online, even toilet paper,” he said. Now, he says, his company’s goal is to fix the aforementioned “last 10-feet” issue for both the homeowner and the retailer when the package is delivered. “We’re trying to create a perfect customer experience from the beginning to the end,” he said.
Jiang isn’t alone. Another device is the Landport, created by entrepreneur Jody Pettit of Portland, Ore. The metal boxes, which include a secure keypad and bolt onto a porch, run from $499 for a 17-inch-square box to a nearly 3-foot-long box for $799. “We have mailboxes for mail, so why don’t we have package boxes for packages?” asked Pettit, who began working on the box in 2013 after a rare family heirloom sent by her mother was likely stolen off her front porch. “It’s a very traumatic experience,” she said. “Your first emotion is that of confusion, because it says the package is delivered, but it’s not there.”
The Landport, made in the U.S., is a lot less complex than the uCella as it doesn’t offer an integrated camera or a text-message service, although the box can be hooked up to a spotter sensor that links other smart appliances and apps that can send you a text message when a package arrives. In addition, the Landport devices also have a safety feature similar to an auto trunk release inside the box so that children can’t lock themselves in one.”We knew no parent would buy one without it,” she said.
The Landport, which is made in Portland, Ore., retails for between $499 and $799. Even if bolt-on boxes like Jiang’s and Pettit’s help put a dent in the “porch pirate” phenomenon, technology is moving even faster. Drone delivery is expected to take off, literally, in the next few years, as the Federal Aviation Administration has cleared delivery drones to begin service as early as 2017, including the about-to-take-flight Amazon Prime Air.
Indeed, Canadian entrepreneur Charles Bombardier recently wrote in the August 2016 issue of Wired magazine that “[d]rones are coming and they’re going to change a lot of things about how we shape our lives” So, he asked, “shouldn’t we change how we shape our buildings to get ready for them?”
Although if the residential real estate community wasn’t prepared for “porch pirates,” it’s even less ready for drones.
Parimal Kopardekar, senior technologist for air transportation system at NASA and principal investigator for the agency’s unmanned aerial systems traffic management program, told the Washington Post in January that homes will need be transformed to be more drone-delivery friendly, with chimneys turned into package chutes, for example, or mailboxes that are 10 feet high, tall enough to stay clear of pets and children.
Condo project TEN50 in Los Angeles may be one of the first buildings with a designated drone delivery deck
Still, some apartments are getting ready for drone deliveries. In Los Angeles’ downtown South Park district, developer Trumark Urban says its new condo project, TEN50, will have the first drone landing pad in the country, with a 6’ by 6’ metal deck on the 6th floor of its 25-story building. “Residents can coordinate deliveries on their smart-phones and pick it up as they enjoy the fitness center, lounge, pool area, and other amenities,” Trumark Urban advertises on the project’s web site.
“The drone landing pad is about to become the 21st-century loading dock,” said CityRealty’s Warshawer. “But even in full-service buildings with doormen, they’re going to have to delegate this responsibility to someone.”