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The Drones are Coming… with Food?: Eating in the Age of the Coronavirus

By: Jess Barfield


Given the impact of the coronavirus and the need for social distancing, drone delivery of food is an idea that makes a lot of sense. However, to the disappointment of many UTK students, you can’t yet get fresh pizza airlifted to your dorm or to your apartment. Still, the success of current test programs may lead to a future that when you look up at the Knoxville sky, you just might see a drone making a food delivery, even a pizza!

What backyard drone delivery could soon look like in the future (Flytrex)


There are a number of pilot programs that are currently bringing drone delivery of food and other items closer to reality. For example, Bloomberg reported that Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery service, has seen an increase in drone orders in their pilot program operating in Virginia. And my home state, North Carolina, is also operating a test program with drones delivering food. The North Carolina program partnered with the drone delivery company Flytrex and the North Carolina Department of Transportation to earn a position in the Federal Aviation Administration’s UAS Integration Pilot Program.


But despite the current success of pilot drone programs, the sky is not yet filled with delivery drones. This is because regulations in the U.S. concerning air traffic change relatively slowly. In fact, one of the toughest restrictions to get a waiver for a drone is for “visual line of sight”, which means that a firm’s drone operator must be able to see the aircraft in person at all times, thus limiting the distance that the drone can travel. However, it is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, on that point, drones may just be a great way to deliver food in the age of the coronavirus and beyond.


Using the tools from Social Studio in the Adam Brown Social Media Command Center, I performed a sentiment analysis over the last 7 days on the keywords “drone + food” and “drone + delivery.” Sentiment analysis is a contextual mining of text (such as tweets and other social media posts) that can identify and extract subjective information in source material, thus allowing the social sentiment for a topic to be evaluated. In this case, the sentiment analysis was highly positive for the use of drones as a delivery platform. How the sentiment changes as drones are more integrated into food delivery will be interesting to see as the future unfolds.