If you follow tech news closely, it can seem as if there’s a new announcement every other week about a dazzling, high-tech delivery system for pizza or burritos. While much of it comes down to the marketing allure of the resulting viral videos, they can reveal a lot about how robot-driven delivery is regulated and tested.

The future of delivery may boil down to standards set by the countries where they’re developed, with global consequences as we set pathways today that the tech will have to follow tomorrow.

But first, pizza.

Pizza that delivers itself

Domino’s deployed its “DRU” (Domino’s Robotic Unit) prototype in Queensland, Australia, back in March, with an eye toward national deployment over two years. The bot, developed with an Australian startup, Marathon Targets, relied on GPS, Google Maps, and LIDAR (think sonar, but with lasers) to deliver pizza to hungry Australians. The battery powers independent driving for up to 12 miles. Locked, temperature-controlled compartments avoid cold or stolen pizza.

The machine resembles a six-wheeled bot deployed for deliveries in England this year by Starship Technologies. That bot was 99% independent, but monitored by a human who could talk to people through a microphone and speaker contraption.

Domino’s, however, is looking to get a finger in every pie. Not content to deliver pizza over land in Australia, neighboring Kiwis can now watch pizza descend from the heavens. DRU’s flight-capable twin was deployed in Auckland in August. The drone delivered its first non-test peri-peri pizza somewhere in the suburb of Whangaparaoa last November. The firm behind the tech are Flirtey, which paired up with 7-11 to deliver coffee, donuts, a chicken sandwich and a Slurpee to the outskirts of Reno, Nevada this year.

A statement from Domino’s Group CEO Don Meij: “Both Domino’s and Flirtey are learning what is possible with the drone delivery for our products, but this isn’t a pie in the sky idea. It’s about working with the regulators and Flirtey to make this a reality for our customers.”

That’s notable not just because of the excellent pie-in-the-sky wordplay, but because it makes clear that the future of autonomous delivery will play out not on streets or sidewalks, but in regulatory spaces.

Slicing up the pie

Local and national response to the regulation of autonomous vehicles differs between streets and skies. In the United States, many firms have deployed autonomous vehicles on the ground, where cities and states call the shots. By comparison, the regulation of airspace is maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Rules for drones in the US and New Zealand both require the drone to be in sight of the driver, for example. But until last year, the FAA required a pilot’s license for commercial drone drivers, and limited flight to daylight hours. That’s unlikely to translate to the world of today’s pizza-delivery couriers.

By defining the practices the tech has to follow, and as US-based innovation companies build products to fit those US regulatory requirements, FAA rules could have an outsized impact on how products develop. So a new, commerce-friendly set of rules announced last year could permit more flexibility for how these machines are built and controlled. 

Mission: Burrito

Which brings us to burritos. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has paired up with Chipotle for a Virginia Tech pilot program, delivering burritos by drone

This project isn’t really about test markets for food delivery. The drones deliver to a kiosk, and the burritos are prepared in a Chipotle food truck. Instead of aiming for a business solution, it’s actually the start of an important pilot program that could change the way FAA regulations work.

The burrito deliveries were a way to develop safety mechanisms and protocols. Combined with pilot programs in New Zealand and the UK, these marketing gimmicks are arguably contributing to the emerging set of tools for controlling drones and air traffic.

Which is ideal, said the director of the project, Dave Vos, to Bloomberg News: “We think the airspace side of this picture is really not a place where any one entity or any one organization can think of taking charge. The idea being that it’s not ‘Google is going to go out and build a solution and everyone else has to subscribe to it.’ The idea really is anyone should be free to build a solution.” 

That means today’s burrito delivery could be paving the way for bolder proposals, such as Amazon’s recent floating warehouse patent, where blimp warehouses float their inventory, and products are dispatched by drones upon order.

What’s NEXT?

If all of this focus on pizza and burritos seems a bit silly, it is. Much of it is marketing, a rush to “be there first” rather than changing the way we eat. At some point it’s easy to dismiss the future of drones and autonomous delivery as a cynical statement about our need for instant gratification.

But it’s not just about pizza getting to us in 3 minutes instead of 30. The data being collected by these high-profile, limited tests are paving the way to important implementations of the technology that transcend whiz-bang science fiction tropes.

Just one example comes from San Francisco startup Zipline, which delivers blood and medicine by autonomous drone to hospitals in Rwanda. With nearly 3 million children dying every year because of  limited access to medicine, Zipline is actually saving lives. It’s a real-world use of the tech that could eventually be deployed in rural areas of the US, too. The startup raised $25 million in funding this year from Sequoia Capital and Andreessen Horowitz.

Zipline works using an autonomous plane. A humanitarian worker places an order for supplies, and the plane (called a “Zip”) is launched with those materials, traveling to its destination via GPS at 60 mph. Right now, it’s quickly delivering blood, plasma and medicine to Rwandan hospitals. The deliveries are made by parachute, so the drone never stops until it returns home.  

There are risks, too, that drones increase the distance between the needs on the ground and our response. But the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action has published a survey about humanitarian drones, with about 60% of aid workers feeling enthusiastic about their role in future efforts. (Notably, though, only about 10% had ever encountered one in the field.) 

Thinking outside the (soggy) box

Until the FAA regulations are better sorted, we’ll continue to see food delivery that caters to a simpler solution: Drive it.

“People don’t like other machines flying over their backyard where their children are playing. So there’s huge social acceptance problems with … the robots that are flying,” Ahti Heinla, the founder of Starship Technologies, told ars technica last year. 

As San Francisco residents have seen, regulations for autonomous vehicles are easily met and occasionally skirted. Uber made headlines for deploying the vehicles, still backed by a human “controller,” without seeking the permission of the Department of Motor Vehicles before retreating just a few weeks later. Google, Tesla Motors and Ford Motor Co, have all obtained California DMV permits for 130 self-driving cars, a process the DMV says takes about three days. 

Shift pie-in-the-sky dreams to cheese-on-wheels, and you’ll find greater potential for flexibility and innovation. In Mountain View, California, that’s the launch of Zume Pizza. The startup delivers pizza made by robots

Each delivery truck has one driver and 56 ovens. The pizza is prepped at the HQ (by robots built by Swiss robotics firm ABB) and baked at the perfect temperature 4 minutes before it arrives at its destination. Ever tried ordering 56 pizzas on a weekday afternoon? Then you know it’s basically impossible, and certainly not fresh. Zume is betting that this can give them an advantage in the billion dollar pizza delivery industry.

So it’s only a matter of time before robots both cook your pizza and deliver it. It may sound cheesy, but no matter how you slice it, there’ll be plenty of of changes as innovators strive to win their piece of that billion dollar pie.

Photo:Pizza Bagel Bot,” by Pete Prodoehl, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr