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Australian textbook delivery, care of drones

A textbook rental start-up will deliver its packages to Sydney customers by drone starting next spring. From ordering to delivery, the entire process could take as little as two minutes.

Video screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia

If you just ordered a book from textbook rental start-up Zookal, look skyward.

Zookal has partnered with aerial-technology startup Flirtey (a joint venture between Zookal and Vimbra) to start delivering its packages to customers via unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as of next year. The technology they're using, the companies say, was previously only available to the military and to universities.

As of March 2014, customers within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of Sydney's central business district will be able to arrange free delivery by air from one of six hexacopters. They will have to order delivery to an outdoor area, and the drone will find the customer based on GPS coordinates sent from an Android app (an iOS app will be built after the program is launched). The UAV will hover over the location and lower the textbooks on a retractable cable, allowing the customer to detach the parcel and the drone to be on its way. The entire process could take as little as two or three minutes.

If the customer isn't there, the textbooks won't be lowered; the customer will have to hit a button on the app to lower the parcel. The drone will wait a short time for the command before flying away, and delivery will have to be rescheduled.

Zookal CEO and Flirtey co-founder Ahmed Haider said the system will save a lot of money on deliveries.

"This joint venture with Flirtey gives us an opportunity to provide a significantly faster and more efficient delivery of goods, while reducing our ecological footprint and costs," he said. "We expect the use of drones will cut our delivery costs from AU$8.60 to 80 cents per delivery, and because they are battery powered, the environmental impact is minimal."

Aerial drones already deliver packages in China. Still, Australia is in a unique position to pioneer commercial UAVs, thanks to regulations introduced by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority earlier this year. A new weight class of under 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) was introduced in a bid to encourage the uptake of commercial UAV use.

"As one of the few countries in the world to allow commercial drone activities, Australia is uniquely placed to create a new drone industry and shape the development of regulations in this space," said Haider, who hopes to take his business global if it succeeds in Australia.

However, due to their use in espionage and war, many have a distrust of UAVs. To combat this, Flirtey is working with the Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering to draft a set of guidelines for the commercial use of drones.

"We hope to use this guide as a way to work through safety, privacy and community concerns locally, which will hopefully set a benchmark for the rest of the world as to how to interact with this new technology," Haider said. "As with most major innovations that start with a military background, such as the Internet, SMS, GPS and satellites, when applied to a community problem, they have a significant and positive impact on society. Our goal is to do this with UAVs. We don't store any user data other than what is required to safely deliver the product."

Zookal and Flirtey are planning a test flight for the drones in November at the University of Sydney.

(Source: CNET Australia)