Technology

Delivering the goods: drone delivery gets off the ground

Drone delivery: the idea has been buzzing around for the last several years. The hype was fueled by Amazon’s announcement of the launch of Prime Air with a promise to deliver goods in thirty minutes. What is really the likelihood for smooth sailing for drone deliveries or will it remain a pie in the sky?

Retailers and package services are vying for the pole position and developing new innovations, but other fields like medical supplies delivery are already making a big impact with small networks. Cities are also exploring the possibilities of drone use in high-density areas. Urban Hub looks at what regulations and solutions still need to follow.

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Published on 17.01.2018

The drone has landed

Fascination with automated, driverless, connected technologies has been growing – particularly regarding how they will transform our lives and workplaces.. They can reduce road congestion and pollution and make services super efficient. The drone is the next generation and promises to bring unprecedented speed to delivery.

Capturing the headlines with its Prime Air drone delivery service, Amazon appears to be leading the way. But other global giants such as Google and Walmart have also entered the race. UPS is even proposing a unique mix of delivery van and drone, which has the potential to accelerate drone delivery implementation in urban centers.

Smaller-scale drone networks have already found a foothold. For example, drones are being successfully used to deliver medical supplies to remote areas. Other industries investigating drone use range from construction to surveying and postal delivery.

These examples, so far, have only demonstrated drones in less-populated or suburban areas. However, cities, like Zurich, Switzerland and Reykjavik, Iceland, are also getting into the act, testing the waters and exploring how drones could improve infrastructure and the services cities that provide for citizens. 

Just how high is consumer confidence in drone delivery?

Why are all eyes on the drone?

At first glance, a drone looks like a child’s toy rather than a sophisticated device set to change the way we shop or expect goods to be delivered. Yet innovative minds are quickly developing ideas for new infrastructures and business models to harness its power. Why?

The most obvious advantage: speed. Drones fly the straightest line from a to b, meaning no more delivery trucks navigating curvy roads. Plus, they just breeze over traffic jams in congested urban spots. Remote areas with poor road infrastructure are more accessible. Customers also like the potential of tracking the drone’s progress, eliminating vague delivery times.

Drone delivery will cut back on the manual labor costs of package delivery. This creates a better return on investment for a business. The drone could also reduce the impact on the environment in comparison to traditional modes of delivery. Faster, cost-effective, and environmentally-friendly, drones could provide retailers a vital competitive edge.

So why hasn’t everyone jumped on board yet?

One headline makes it sound like drone delivery is coming soon to a home near you, while the next one tells you it’s all still far in the future. So what’s the real status? Is the technology up to speed? Will the needed regulations fall into place? And just how confident are consumers?

Fully autonomous drone flights are already in use for surveying mining operations and construction sites. The operational technology of the drone has become easy to handle. But for use in deliveries, more work needs to be done in areas like collision avoidance, noise reduction, and flying during inclement weather – as well as overall logistics infrastructure.

The real obstacle is the regulatory environment. In the U.S., the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) stipulates that drones must be controlled by a human operator and within line of sight. In 2017, new orders allowed for local governments to apply for waivers to conduct tests of drone air-traffic systems, but that is a far cry from giving drones the green light.

Plus, the potentially crowded airspace requires a sophisticated automated tracking management system, which is currently not in place. NASA is working with drone industry leaders to develop such a system, but the projected completion date isn’t until 2025.

No matter what the technology or rules, consumer confidence will have the final say. With a promise of near instant gratification, consumers – according to some surveys – will open their doors to drone delivery. Yet, other indicators show they will wait to embrace the drone until they are assured that it’s safe and won’t impinge on personal privacy.

Drone economics

In addition to reducing labor costs, drone delivery is being promoted as intrinsically more economical than truck delivery. But if only one package can be delivered at a time before returning to the warehouse, how can this be possible?

The rule of last-mile deliveries – the critical part in a product’s journey – is that delivering many packages over a short period of time or distance keeps the cost per delivery low. This also applies to dropping off lots of deliveries at the same location. If packages are light (less than five pounds), however, and delivered over short distances (ideally no more than 10 miles), the economics begin to swing back in favor of drones.

Yet, this potential can only be harnessed if companies invest upfront in building supply centers throughout the area they want to service. For some, this may only be a small hurdle. According to Walmart, 70% of Americans live within five miles of a Walmart store, and Amazon is already focusing on building so-called “Fulfillment Centers.”

 

Packages dropping from the sky – watch Prime Air’s very-first delivery as part of a trial period in Cambridge, UK.

The drone delivery race is on

Amazon announced the launch of Prime Air in late-2013. It struck a deal with the UK Civil Aviation Authority to begin trial deliveries in British suburbs in 2016. The first Prime Air delivery, conducted by a GPS-guided drone at an elevation of 400 feet, took just 13 minutes. Amazon plans to expand the trial to dozens of customers in the Cambridge, UK, area.

In 2017, Google took part in a set of tests conducted by NASA and the FAA. Its drone project “Project Wing” is developing software to automatically manage all sorts of drones from a variety of manufacturers. If it’s successful, a key part of the drone delivery system would fall into place. Until then, Project Wing drones can be seen in trials in Australia delivering burritos!

UPS has no plans to replace delivery vans but to top them up with a drone. Rather than worry about building more warehouses, the van will bring packages closer to its final destination and the drone would go the last mile. UPS  calculates cutting just one mile from each route would save $50 million a year. The van/drone duo could be the perfect solution for cities as well.

Drones and vans – delivering together

Ironing out the wrinkles from point a to b

With the first trials underway, there are plenty of opportunities to iron out wrinkles in the logistics and infrastructure – and introduce some interesting innovations along the way that address every step of the supply chain from supply center to final landing.

The warehouse will be the heart of the drone delivery network. While the image of the landscape dotted with dozens of warehouses facilitating drone deliveries is unappealing, it is plausible. Cities, however, present a problem. Amazon’s dream solution is an urban “beehive” live tower – a multi-leveled warehouse able to release dozens of drones directly into the sky.

At the receiving end, customers may receive a landing pad that signals to the drone where to dock. In cities, rooftops could become receiving ports. Other solutions include a parachute-drop option. To assuage customers’ fears of injury, new designs for drones feature longer legs and mechanisms to stop propellers when they near a foreign object.

Amazon’s “bee-hives” optimize logistics in urban centers

The drone in the big city

Amazon’s vision of a beehive like structure presents a rather far-out answer to the challenge of urban supply centers. Cities are taking drone matters into their own hands and carving out their own flight plan for success. There is huge potential for drones to plug into already existing smart  technologies and to reduce urban congestion.

A new UK project, “The Flying High Challenge ” will work with five cities to address how to use drones creatively and effectively in urban settings. Together, they will tackle safety and regulatory issues to unlock market opportunities but will also brainstorm on the ways drones can improve services like road safety and emergency care.

In Reykjavik, a fully-operating food delivery service by AHA, an online platform for restaurants, is already off the ground. For now, it is limited to a single route going over the bay. It works in tandem with a bike courier, but there are future plans for backyard deliveries. The waterways and circuitous roads make the city the perfect spot to benefit from drones.

Zurich started trials of a van and drone-based system. It will be the first time a city has used a beyond-line-of-sight drone operation. It promises two-hour delivery from a distribution center to the customer. The solution views the van as a rolling distribution hub and plans are to use it to deliver everything from coffee to medical supplies.

The urban drone delivery may rely on rooftop landing pads

With drones, help is on the way.

While retailers and the drone industry finalize some crucial details to providing widespread commercial delivery service, there are also an increasing number of stories of other initiatives exploring the ways delivery by drone can help us.

On July 17, 2015, in rural West Virginia, the first U.S. medical delivery via drone took place. A remotely-operated drone made three flights to transport medicine from a small airport to a nearby fairground. Two organizations providing healthcare to under-served areas instigated the trial run with the drone start-up Flirtey.

In Lesotho, a fully-operating drone delivery network is taking a humanitarian trip. This land-locked country with poor road infrastructure uses the network to deliver blood samples to the hospital for HIV/AIDS testing in the capital city. The drones fly autonomously and re-charge automatically.

Drones coming to the future soon

The solutions currently being innovated, whether by industry giants, governments or start-ups, continue to inspire us to open our minds to the potential of these “identified” flying objects. With promises of big savings, safe, fast delivery and happy customers, it is no longer a matter of “if,” but “when.”

Most experts don’t see drone deliveries in the commercial sector really taking off before 2021 – as regulatory barriers and some logistical issues remain to be solved. At the moment, we are more likely to see drone use in low-density areas and on a smaller scale in cities. Whatever their application, drones promise to be a new permanent fixture in the skies.