Pizza Drones Are Real, And We Hope They're Coming Soon

A Russian pizzeria is keeping the pizza-drone dream alive

Even the best food could use a dash of ones and zeros. Geek out with us as we explore the intersection of food and technology this month.

For many geeks and gluttons, 2014 seemed like the dawn of a glorious era of drone-based pizza delivery. Following in the footsteps of 2011's unrealized TacoCopter, which promised to bypass traffic and rapidly deliver tacos anywhere, pizza drones took to the skies worldwide. Optimistic futurists, likely emboldened by Amazon's 2013 delivery drone endorsement, made it seem like drone operations would scale up in the near future: Brooklyn's Williamsburg Pizza, which flew a pie up four stories to a neighbor in November 2014, said that by 2018, it might have a fleet of 25 drones. Sadly, most of these test deliveries never went beyond playful PR.

The failure of these pizzerias to launch full-scale drone delivery services doesn't mean such programs are not feasible though. Enter Dodo Pizza, a techy shop founded in 2011 in Syktyvkar, Russia, which back in 2014 created a functional delivery system using drones. Although Russian cops quickly put the kibosh on its fun, Dodo's model remains a template for how to make unmanned pizza deliveries work today. And with Dodo set to open its first American shop on February 25 in Oxford, Mississippi—even with no immediate plans to launch drones—it may help revive the dream of pizza drones in 2016.

Dodo's system back in Syktyvkar didn't involve amateurs with off-the-shelf tech, as some delivery stunts have. It was a collaboration between the chain and a company called Copter Express. The drone maker developed 22-pound vehicles for $15 each, capable of carrying up to 10 pounds of pizza at 25 miles per hour. Although cheap and effective, they still risked getting tangled in wires and losing control signals behind city buildings, like all drones. So the team decided to preplan a single safe route to a public park. There, a Dodo worker could take orders, then drones would fly out with hot pies to a space usually unserved by address-based delivery people. To avoid theft, the copters (with built-in cameras) hovered over the delivery site, lowering pizzas to customers via a 65-foot cable. Launched in June 2014, the system sold six pizzas in just over an hour.

According to Alena Tikhova, director of product development at Dodo's new Oxford shop, deliveries to public places aren't only great PR. They also expand a chain's business, while cutting down on salaries and delivery times—without risking the warmth or integrity of a snug, insulated pie. Although Tikhova refers to the system as an experiment, its success at the time led to talk of expanding it to 18 Russian cities with Dodo branches. But then police swooped in, issuing Dodo a $1,500 fine for violating vague airspace regulations. They said that any repeat offenses would lead to more severe sanctions. So Dodo shuttered the system after a few deliveries.

The company's move to a less legally arbitrary America hasn't inspired a drone relaunch. "There's no way you can deliver a pizza by drone in the U.S. today," Tikhova says, "because of the [Federal Aviation Administration]." Under FAA regulations, commercial activities using drones must be approved by the agency. Every drone must have an operator keeping a physical line of sight on the device. And they cannot fly within 500 feet of populated places, or around airports or stadiums, or above 500 feet. For the past few years, this has meant that you usually can't do drone deliveries full stop—much less the automated, cheap variety from Syktvkar.

But fortuitously, a drone component at the Oxford shop may become possible in the near future. In July 2015, the FAA authorized a start-up working with NASA and Virginia Tech to make drone deliveries of medical supplies to a rural clinic, and floated the notion that it could soon develop regulations for drones to operate out of lines of sight. The agency has also issued more exemptions for commercial drone usage, granting 3,155 permits to date—two for experimental delivery systems.

If the FAA continues to ramp up its permissions and develops out-of-sight automatic flight regulations, Dodo may be able to launch a fully operational, no-stunts system in the near future.

"We were even thinking about making a drone station here in Oxford on campus," Tikhova says, explaining that they'll be reevaluating their business model and services in about six months.

When the FAA will finally accommodate drone delivery and whether Dodo will be in a place to revive its drone system at that time remains to be seen. But Dodo has demonstrated that pie copters are feasible in certain limited situations. Though you won't be able to order a pie on the move any time soon, it's possible that within a year or two, you'll be able to visit a public hot spot, jab at your phone, and, within a few minutes, receive a piping hot slice. And only then will the future finally be now.