Dec 20, 2021 - Technology

The mailbox gets a makeover for drone deliveries

Image of a drone delivering a package to a Dronedek smart mailbox.
Dronedek's smart mailbox is wired to automatically receive drone deliveries. Photo: Dronedek

Your post-mounted mailbox could one day be replaced by a temperature-controlled smart box capable of receiving medicine, groceries and parcels by drone.

Why it matters: After the novelty of drone delivery wears off, people aren't going to run out of their homes to greet the whirring machines as they lower packages to the ground. Instead, they'll expect deliveries that are automated and secure.

What's happening: An Indiana company, Dronedek, has developed a patented, sensor-equipped receptacle it hopes will one day be as ubiquitous as today's letter box.

Details: It's about 4 feet tall and 2 feet square, with a lid that automatically opens when the drone arrives to drop off — or retrieve — a package.

  • The secure door is heated and motorized for easy access, and there's a cushioned landing pad inside to prevent damage to packages.
  • Individual compartments can be heated or cooled, and UV lights can disinfect parcels if needed.
  • There's even a letter slot for traditional mail.

Inventor Dan O'Toole says his 2014 patent application, granted in 2017, beat Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service by just days.

  • With $6.8 million in mostly crowdsourced funding, he's now planning for the first large-scale test of his concept in Lawrence, a suburb of Indianapolis.
  • Within the next 18 months, Dronetek plans to roll out 4,000 boxes, he tells Axios.

How it works: The units currently cost $3,000 apiece, but Dronedek's goal is to reduce that to about $1,000.

  • The company intends to give them free to early adopters, and then charge a $15 monthly subscription after a six-month trial period.
  • Homeowners (or businesses) need to pay for installation, which could cost as much as $1,000 to add electrical power.
  • The box can receive goods from any participating shipper, and users will receive an alert on the Dronedek app when a package is delivered.
  • It can even serve as a charging port for drones between deliveries and can be equipped with emergency lights to aid first responders.

"Drones are the commodity. We're the gateway to every home and business in the world," O'Toole tells Axios, calling it a funnel technology to the last mile of delivery.

  • By 2027, he's projecting $11.5 billion in revenue generated from customer subscriptions, shipper access fees and data collection.

Reality check: O'Toole is biting off a lot with his next-generation mailbox, and success is far from guaranteed.

State of play: For now, drones can't fly beyond the line of sight of the operator without a waiver, which limits any kind of regular delivery service until FAA rules are in place.

The bottom line: Drone package delivery is coming, but often overlooked is that there must be a receiving point for all those packages.

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