Is Space the Next Frontier for Deliveries?

While drones and robots have been ushering in the future of e-commerce fulfillment, a new startup is dialing up those ambitions by developing Earth-orbiting delivery capsules that travel faster than the speed of sound.

Photography by Thamrongpat Theerathammakorn/Getty Images

Fulfillment centers may be going into orbit. Justin Fiaschetti and Austin Briggs, the 23-year-old entrepreneurs behind the year-old startup Inversion, have been developing earth-orbiting capsules that aim to deliver goods from the cosmos. The two believe that as space travel becomes cheaper (the cost of launching two pounds into space has fallen 90 percent over the past three decades), government agencies and companies will use the service to store items in orbit and, when summoned, speedily send them back to Earth. 

That’s no easy task—when capsules re-enter the atmosphere, high travel speeds (about 25 times as fast as the speed of sound) induce the danger of fire. Still, with venture capital firms investing $8.9 billion in space technology in 2020 alone, it’s easy to see why early-stage companies are racing to innovate. Inversion is planning for a small demonstration capsule to be ready as soon as 2023. 

Space delivery may seem like a pipe dream; not everyone is warming to the prospect, with one critic even dismissing Inversion as a “weird orbital Rube Goldberg machine.” But with the pandemic ushering in increased reliance on e-commerce, the tech world has been testing new methods to expedite deliveries. Autonomous delivery robots, previously the stuff of science fiction, are starting to become more commonplace thanks to venture capital interest, machine learning algorithms, and ultrasonic sensors that detect solid objects. Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Starship Technologies, estimates his company’s robots made two million autonomous deliveries by late 2021. It’s still not enough to impress city officials in San Francisco, Ottawa, and Toronto, which all banned them due to safety issues like potential human “toe-flattening.”

Image courtesy Inversion Space

Major corporations like Alphabet, UPS, and even Domino’s are investing in drone delivery services as a speedier and safer alternative. Amazon is betting on unmanned aerial vehicles as the future of e-commerce fulfillment, announcing in 2019 plans to launch Prime Air, which would deliver orders by drone within 30 minutes. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, launched its own Wing service that delivers FedEx packages and Walgreens wellness products straight to customers’ doorsteps and in 2021 reported a 600 percent annual increase in completed deliveries. The FAA limits drone operators to carry cargo less than 55 pounds in weight, meaning the health and wellness industry delivering prescription-sized packages stands to benefit the most from drones. 

Space delivery still faces a few major roadblocks. “The big obstacle that everyone in the sector is trying to overcome is that at current costs, there just isn’t that much demand to do much in space,” Matthew C. Weinzierl, a professor at Harvard Business School, tells The New York Times. Beyond that, the more damning barrier might be the 23,000 pieces of space debris lunging through the atmosphere at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour that have the capacity to destroy major spacecrafts on impact.

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