A version of this story was published in Postal Technology International magazine in Spring 2014.
When Amazon head Jeff Bezos unveiled a fleet of unmanned robot helicopters that his company plans to use to make parcel deliveries it was a masterstroke of PR.
The announcement came last November over the Thanksgiving weekend, one of America’s biggest shopping periods, and made headlines around the world. But while the timing led cynics to deride Bezos’ drone delivery test project as little more than a cheap publicity stunt, others saw the plan as the true taste of things to come.
Technology geeks predicted that drone delivery could help usher in a whole new era where the half-hour deliveries Bezos was promising could enable the creation of a ‘sharing economy’ where goods could be rented and returned rather than bought outright. Others were worried about the safety impact of thousands of drones buzzing around our home towns, with one observer noting wryly in the Washington Post, “It’s all fun and games till Sally loses a finger.”
But while there’s little chance our streets will be swarming with postal robots any time soon, the signs are that drone delivery is being looked at seriously by postal companies worldwide.
Just a few weeks after Amazon’s announcement DHL used a quadcopter to fly a package of medicine from a pharmacy in Bonn to the company’s headquarters on the other side of the Rhine river. Emblazoned with the DHL logo the ‘Paketkopter’ – as the drone was called – flew at a height of 50 metres for one kilometre, taking just two minutes to complete its journey.
DHL said its test flight was for research only and, like Amazon, insisted they have no plans to begin drone deliveries any time soon.
In Australia, however, the concept will soon become a reality thanks to student textbook delivery start-up Zookal, which will launch its own fleet of delivery drones in Sydney this year “pending final regulatory approval”.
Ahmed Haiser, CEO of Zookal, says that due to the location density of most Australian universities they will focus initially on “hyper local” delivery.
He says: “The drones are equipped with a unique delivery mechanism that lowers the parcel to the consumer to collect. The parcel is not dropped to the ground and the drone hovers above the consumer’s GPS location safely lowering the package through our delivery mechanism.”
Zookal has been helped by a friendly regulatory climate in Australia, one of the few countries that permits commercial drone use. Despite Amazon’s announcement commercial unmanned vehicle use remains illegal in the US. That looks set to change in the near-future however.
An aviation law enacted by President Obama in 2012 already allows the use of unmanned aircraft by public safety entities like the police, firefighters and other emergency services. Among the agencies that have taken advantage of the law are the US Coast Guard, who used a drone in a recent raid on a boat trafficking over 560 kilos of cocaine in the eastern Pacific, and the Department of Homeland Security, which uses Predator drones for border surveillance.
The other main non-military use of drones right now is for scientific research. They are being used to perform ice cap studies in the Arctic, track coastal erosion and monitor populations of endangered species.
According to Les Dorr, a spokesman for the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the signs are that the 2012 law will be extended to include commercial craft by 2015. Dorr says the FAA ruling due next year is likely to include authorization for “small unmanned commercial aircraft under 55lbs”.
“There’s a real growth in this area,” says Dorr. “The FAA is already predicting 7,500 small unmanned aircraft in the air in the next few years.”
The FAA announced in late December the creation of six US test sites where it will the generate data that will inform how the commercial drone industry will be regulated.
High on their priorities during the testing phase will surely be how to make the craft safe and secure. While most drones have built-in anti-collision technology to keep them clear of trees, buildings, birds and – assuming the technology becomes popular – skies filled with other drones, towns and cities throng with people and if something were to go wrong the consequences could be serious.
Ron Tolido, chief technology officer for application services at the consultancy firm Capgemini, says that well-established industry safety standards are already in place to help ensure public safety.
Tolido says: “A sensor can sense its surroundings thousands of times within a second so that drones can adjust their position and course. And even complex swarms of delivery drones should not lead to collisions. Just look at a flock of perfectly synchronized birds (or fish) and you start to get the point.”
To minimize the chance of collision Haiser says Zookal use set flight paths that avoid residential areas where possible. Along with multiple fail-safe mechanisms and collision avoidance technology, Haiser claims the safety features make the risk of accident “the same as a commercial airliner falling from the sky”. In other words, very small.
But it’s not just safety issues that concern the public. Ask most people what comes to mind when you say drone and they’ll likely think of the technology’s original use as a weapon of war. In conflict areas drones are used to spy on and, in the case of the US military’s campaign in Pakistan, to kill the enemy.
Mario Mairena, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade body representing 8,000 members in 60 countries, admits that the technology’s military background has led to an image problem.
“There’s too many negative connotations because of how they are used in the theatre of war,” says Mairena.
As a result the AUVSI never uses the word drone in its literature, preferring instead the term unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
“Some people are against drones because they think they’ll be used for spying but when you think about it telephoto lens are used for surveillance but no one talks about banning cameras,” says Mairena, who says all AUVSI members sign on to a set of guidelines that expressly forbid the use of drones for surveillance.
The public perception aside, there are other important obstacles to drone delivery.
Richard Wishart runs the Delivery Management technology consultancy, advising posts on new technology solutions. He sees unmanned drones as a potentially disruptive technology but only if the “practical issues around the edges” can be ironed out.
Wishart says: “Weather is a detrimental factor. From my understanding most drones don’t perform well in high winds. So what happens to your deliveries when it’s blowing a gale outside?”
Added to this, he says, are the weight, size and range limitations of the drones. The octocopters favoured by Amazon can carry a maximum payload of 2.3 kilos and can travel no more than 10 miles. Meanwhile the payload boxes showcased in the trial could fit parcels of no more than about ten inches in length.
“Logistics relies on variability so a delivery system with such a narrow range of capabilities will struggle to succeed,” says Wishart.
It’s early days of course and there’s every chance that future generations of delivery drones could extend their range and payload capacity. What may be more difficult to get around is the problem of where to leave parcels. In a suburban, semi-rural or rural areas the drone could drop parcels on a driveway or in front lawn or even – as Wishart suggests – on a specially-designed helipad.
But what about inner cities? Short of flying in through the window there’s no obvious solution for how a drone would get a package to someone on the tenth floor of a London high rise, for example. Tolido suggests an “intermediate phase” where parcels could be delivered to local hubs.
“Door-to-door consumer delivery will clearly take quite some more time,” he says. “Both hubs and eventually homes will need specific equipment like docking platforms and storage facilities. Positioning can be done very precisely so this will not be an inhibitor.”
None of the obstacles to drone delivery are unsurmountable, says Wishart, whose keen to point out that the concept fits well into the emerging trend in logistics, spurred by the rise of eCommerce and omni-channel retail, for moving warehousing closer to the client.
“Their short ranges mean drones will need to operate from local warehouses,” he says. “Because of this they integrate well with the new paradigm.”
Advocates offer other advantages drones have over traditional delivery methods. For one thing they can work all the time and they are relatively cheap. Twenty drones costs equivalent to a single FedEx truck, and while Haiser won’t reveal the Zookal drone’s operational costs he expects it will come in at less than current same-day delivery fees.
If postal companies choose to invest in drones they’ll be joining a burgeoning market, says Mairena. A report by the AUVSI projects that regulations to expand drone technology to the commercial sector will help create more than 100,000 new jobs and generate more than $82 billion for the US economy in the next ten years.
Around 80 percent of this growth is predicted to come in agriculture. Drones can be used to more precisely spray crops and identify possible outbreaks of disease before they spoil a harvest. The companies Mairena represents look longingly to Japan where all the agricultural crop-spraying is now managed by a fleet of 2,300 unmanned helicopters.
The agricultural bias aside, Mairena sees no reason why drone delivery won’t be part of this Brave New World.
“I definitely see drones being used in this way,” he says. “I think it’s one of the smartest commercial applications of the new technology I’ve heard of.