The growing case for drone delivery systems

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Imagine six huge unmanned flying drones each carrying one ton of cargo landing at a logistics center. Within minutes, robots unload the contents and squadrons of autonomous flying delivery drones leave the distribution center to deliver these items.

Seems far-fetched, but the world of drone delivery is already closer than you think.

First world problems

DHL first began testing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) delivery services in 2014, when it began delivering medical supplies to Just, an island in the North Sea off Germany.

UPS has successfully tested a drone that launches from the top of a delivery truck. Pizza by drone became a reality in November 2016, when Domino's delivered chicken pizza to a customer in Whangaparaoa, New Zealand.

Amazon made its first commercial drone delivery to a remote UK farm the following month, and its first US test ran in 2017. Google parent company Alphabet’s drone delivery tests are taking place in a semi-rural residential development In New South Wales, Australia.

What connects many of these efforts is a need to get goods to consumers while enabling productivity and profit gains.

Emerging economies

Emerging economies have more pressing needs. In many cases they lack the road or air transport infrastructure logistics companies or retailers need to reach remote regions.

China's biggest online retailer, JD.com, is testing delivery drones that will carry up to a ton of cargo. It will build its first fully autonomous warehouse by 2018 and hopes to create an autonomous delivery network to efficiently serve both urban and hard to reach rural areas. Like UPS, it is building a fleet of self-driving trucks equipped with flying drones for the last mile delivery.

These drone delivery systems will empower emerging economies, enabling them to leapfrog conventional infrastructure investment. This can benefit nations and their people. For example, Zipline drones delivered blood from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to a medical facility 60km away. The four-hour road journey took the drone just 15-minutes.

Away from Africa, UkrPoshta, the Ukrainian Postal Service just began a drone delivery pilot program with Israel’s Flytrex, which plans to be the “FedEx of drone delivery”.

The legal challenge

There are technological and regulatory challenges that must be overcome. Technology challenges include a need to develop collision detection systems and network infrastructure capable of carrying UAV data chatter.

The lack of universal rules around drone delivery is also a problem. A good example of how this hampers development was visible when Amazon’s first successful trial took place in the UK. This reflected the difference between UK Civil Aviation Authority drone rules and stringent US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation. Existing FAA rules forbid vehicles leaving a pilot’s line of sight or flying over non-involved parties, for example. Under pressure from Amazon, the US government in June 2017 agreed to create a “delivery air carrier certificate” to enable package deliveries by drones, which should unlock activity in the space.

What about the economics?

There are positive economic arguments to support drone distribution. Not only do drones cut delivery costs, they may also help reduce CO2 emissions and enable distribution to remote communities currently underserved by existing infrastructure.

  • A 2015 Ark Investing study estimated that drone delivery would enable Amazon to cut delivery costs to just $1 per shipment, down from $7.99.
  • Worldwide, a 39 percent increase in trucking volume is expected by 2030.
  • A University of Washington study found that “drones produced less CO2 per delivery than trucks”.

An Increase in trucking volume also demands an increase in infrastructure spending. The American Road and Transport Association claims building new roads in areas with tough terrain can cost as much as $5 million per mile, while a drone network can cost under $1 million to serve the same area.

When are they coming?

Drone delivery really is closer than ever. Thirty-six percent of consumers expect to receive their first drone-delivered package in the next two years, according to the Walker Sands Future of Retail 2017 report.

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Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.