A Future for Drone Delivery?

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Drone-parcel-deliveryThe inescapable debate surrounding the use of unmanned aircraft has sparked imaginations to run wild. The world’s leading courier companies and online retail giants have followed the same route paved by the Defence Sector in investigating how drones can deliver their services more effectively to consumers globally. Are drones truly the future of parcel delivery?

Amazon has recently managed an immense step towards utilising drone technology for its own in-house delivery fleet. The online retail giant has been granted licenses by the United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to begin commercial testing of a prototype drone in the US. Not without a few conditions attached, however. All drones must be flown under 400ft and in the eye line of the respective pilot who, individually, must process a small aircraft license and full medical review.

The FAA has traditionally been hesitant to grant Amazon permission for its drone trials due to the outlawing of commercial drone activities a few years before. Security and health and safety fears quickly dampened any effort to radically develop the emerging market. Amazon has remained persistent in obtaining an exemption for this law however and in a letter to the FAA argued that the corporation would be forced to take their program overseas unless rules were changed. The law, argued Amazon, was standing in the way of development.

Amazon created a media stir when the announcement came for its new strategy. The ‘30 minute same day delivery service’ was quickly laughed off as a PR stunt and not given much credibility. Netflix, Audi, Groupon and Waterstones all released spoof press releases with amusing videos mocking Amazon’s announcement with their own drone inspired doomsday scenarios and delivery ideas.

This has been a short lived exercise however. Chinese retailer Alibaba has stolen the spotlight from Amazon and recently commenced a three-day trial of its own drone delivery fleet. The online retail giant invited 450 of its customers to order ginger tea packages to be delivered in selected provinces. In an email Alibaba said: “This is a one-off campaign where ginger tea packets ordered on Taobao (partner of Alibaba) can be delivered to designated cities or regions within an hour. We’re unsure about future possibilities yet, but this is our first drone delivery service campaign.”

Drone2Large courier services like UPS and FedEx have also been enthusiastic by the possibilities of drone deliveries, but it’s hard not to be seduced by the excitingly futuristic concept of unmanned flying machines whizzing through cities. And it makes for great PR, too. Francesco’s pizza in Mumbai attempted drone delivery for its pizzas and filmed the process. Aside from the surprised faces from Mumbai’s citizens below as a 12inch margarita pizza was flown just above their heads, the Mumbai police force seemed to be the most enthusiastic about the spectacle. The police chief immediately ordered an end to the pizza chain’s efforts.

In Europe, German courier group DHL has successfully been using drones to deliver pharmaceuticals to remote German islands. DHL’s Paketkopter 2.0 delivers the packages to the island of Juist which has a population of fewer than 2,000. This is the first instance where delivery via unmanned aircraft has been done out of sight of a pilot.

China’s largest mail company is already in the process of delivering 500 parcels a day with drones. The company has plans to double its delivery capacity as it only delivers to remote areas in Shenzhen and Huizhou. The all-weather drones deliver the parcels between couriers before automatically returning to base.

This hasn’t dampened scepticism shown towards Amazon’s and others’ ambitious ideas. Most criticism has been directed towards the short battery life drones retain. Much like smartphone and laptop retailers, compact batteries for high energy use products are still flagging behind. Alibaba’s three-day-trial for example only delivered incredibly light tea-bags to customers within a very short-range of the depot. The drone’s battery power was subsequently not tested and the same goes for Amazon.

The logistical challenges presented by operating drones in civilian airspace is also a never-ending nightmare. Power lines, buildings and angry birds are all issues that an effective drone delivery fleet would have to contend with. But delivery drones are hardly round the corner, with most large courier firms suggesting the technology is not yet large-scale commercially viable. Critical questions like how would a parcel be signed for, where would it be left and how it would prove to be financially plausible have yet to be answered.

ParcelHero Head of Public Relations, David Jinks MILT, says: I’ve said in the past that that drones might fly; but so might pigs. Perhaps I was a little harsh. Amazon’s tenacious commitment to developing this technology shows it is indeed more than a mere publicity stunt for the company. At the moment it’s very hard to see how Amazon could ever convince aviation authorities, even if the technology is perfected. However, Amazon is known for taking the long view, it continually ploughs much of its income into new developments, as its long-suffering shareholders will confirm. It’s even filed patents for 3D printers in trucks that will make items en route to the customer. With this level of long term planning perhaps delivery drones really do have a future.’

Certainly the possibilities behind this technology has only inspired further development. Access to military grade software and technology has largely been made available due to the advancement of smartphones. From gyroscopes to processing power, drones are the next product reaping the rewards of a technologically driven economy. Google’s Project Wing is Silicon Valley’s answer to drone development. The internet giant has committed a large amount of resources to the advancement of drones for varying reasons. Google used underwater drones for its underwater mapping as part of its Google Earth project and its now using the same technology to make a break into the logistics market.

Astro Teller, head of Google’s drone operations said to The Australian: “Throughout history there have been a series of innovations that have each taken a huge chunk out of the friction of moving things around. Project Wing aspires to remove another big chunk of that remaining friction. Google wants to transform the way people receive products.” The automation of logistics by removing the human element of transport and delivery is the end product of drone delivery. Faster deliveries not restricted by working hours and higher company profits are the expected results of the dehumanisation of delivery.

And let’s not forget that similar criticism was given towards the rise of the electric car, an industry now leading in the development of highly efficient portable batteries. The renewable energy sector has a tendency for innovation in new technologies and as drones will be operating via battery power, solar powered drones or ones powered by batteries similar to those in Tesla’s new ground breaking cars is not an impossibility. The future of drone delivery is very real. It’s just still very young.

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