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Drones: The Delivery Revolution

Drones: The Delivery Revolution

Little more than a decade ago the notion that drones would one day revolutionise the delivery sector, was nothing more than that – an idea. However, ever since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the e-commerce platform was testing drones as a method of delivery in late 2013, a number of other sectors have been racing to find new applications for commercial drones. In fact, the number of permits granted by the US’ Federal Aviation Association (FAA) shot up rapidly between 2014 and 2016, increasing over 3000% in the space of just 24 months.

While drones have the potential to revolutionise a number different industries, there’s no doubt that the sector attracting the most media attention in terms of development and testing is the delivery industry. Drones could allow delivery companies to bypass many of the challenges associated with the ‘last mile’ – the last stage of the delivery process before a consumer receives their package. The last mile is the most expensive and inefficient stage of the fulfilment process and a whole host of companies are exploring ways to increase efficiency and cut costs during this stage of this journey.

In an increasingly competitive online market, e-commerce companies are eager to cut delivery times and reduce costs in order to drive up customer satisfaction and loyalty. While legacy retailers are also exploring new fulfilment options as a means to help increase their online sales. Meanwhile, progressive logistic companies are also exploring revolutionary delivery options seeing start-ups slowly begin to claim market share – some are even using new technology to position themselves as favoured partners for more conventional logistics providers.

While mainstream drone delivery might be a few years away, a number of global brands are in advanced stages of commercial testing, and some are even entering live trail phases. Amazon Prime Air is the closest mainstream realisation, with two customers currently live trialling the service in Cambridge. ‘Air’ aims to deliver packages to consumers in less than 30 minutes and the retailer is using the trial to gather data to improve the safety and reliability of its systems and operations.

Meanwhile UPS have successfully tested their new drone delivery service in Florida. In a private trial the concept drone detached from its docking point in a modified UPS van, delivered a package to a remote farmhouse, and then returned to its charging station while the van’s driver made a separate delivery. Though the FAA’s regulations currently require drone operators keep their machines within line of sight, UPS is working collaboratively with the aviation authority to realise this concept.

While much of the media conversation currently revolves around delivering purchases to consumers, drones are also now being utilised in a variety of delivery contexts. Since mid-March, logistics company Swiss Post has operated more than 70 flights between a pair of hospitals in Lugano and recently announced they intended on making it a permanent service. While Silicon Valley based firm Zipline conducted a similar trial in rural Rwanda last year, these flights mark the first ever commercial deployment of drones in an urban area.

It is that word – urban – that poses the greatest challenge for companies looking to commercialise drones. Fast moving urban environments hold the greatest number of opportunities for companies looking to capitalise on the on-demand nature of busy consumers, but companies looking to operate drones within highly developed landscapes face far more legislative barriers. The UK is currently one of the only countries that permits drones to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), albeit with a licence, and while a number of other countries are looking to work with developers to improve and advance legislation others are tightening regulation.

The commercialisation of drones, an idea that Amazon helped to set in motion back in 2013, certainly looks set to revolutionise the delivery sector. As the global drone market continues to grow and overcome legislative barriers, commercial delivery drones will begin to play a more significant role in the fulfillment process, and will no doubt be a part of the connected smart cities of the future.

The Amazon effect – the hoax that inspired a revolution

Fifteen months on from their initial ‘launch’ announcement, Amazon is rumoured to be investigating starting trials of its drone delivery service right here in the British Isles after being hampered in its native US by stringent regulations. And once again, the online platform tops the news agenda, splitting expert opinion as to whether or not commercial drones could one day become reality.

Having strategically revealed their plans the night before ‘Cyber Monday’ 2013 however (the biggest e-commerce shopping day of the year), the sceptic in me wonders why this clearly headline-grabbing hoax – one that has been done many times before I might add – hasn’t withered away into white noise already. When you start taking potential risks and limitations into account, it becomes clear that any company honestly looking to take up the challenge of commercial drone usage will be up against a mountain of regulatory hurdles before anyone even utters the words ‘lift off’.

Drones have gone from concept to reality in the past two years.

Drones have gone from concept to reality in the past two years.

But of course, the weight of the Amazon name alone is a force to be reckoned with and where others would have moved on to other news, Amazon has achieved immortality by sparking a veritable technological revolution and a very real demand for something we never knew we wanted.

Think about it – before Amazon Prime Air, how many drone companies had you ever heard of? How many times had you heard of drone technology being used for anything but warfare? Now, less than two years on, there are 359 organisations with permits to use drones in the skies over Britain, along with what experts believe are thousands of home users tinkering away. We have ‘selfie’ drones raising millions on Kickstarter, waiter drones serving diners at swanky restaurants and several, newly established aerial photography businesses jumping on the bandwagon too. We’re even seeing our first trade shows emerging for commercial UAVs. The sector is in its infancy, and yet is already thought to be worth more than £100bn globally and predicted to employ 150,000 people in the EU alone by 2050.

That’s not to say drones are without controversy – crashing into journalists and coming into close contact with passenger planes certainly hasn’t done the sector any favours, and the confusion around what you can and can’t do with the machines has led to a number of innocent hobby pilots inadvertently breaking the law (for example, by flying over highly-populated areas and buildings without permission, or restricted airspace), some of whom now face fines and prosecution. But they now constantly feature in the press – and the more momentum the sector builds, the more reason for Amazon to keep the story going.

So, having placed its stake in the ground, whether, through meticulous planning or fortunate accident, Amazon is now going the distance and clearing the path for its flock to follow in its footsteps, determined to ensure drone technology finds its place in everyday life.

I can’t help but wonder if the PR who threw ‘drone delivery’ out in a brainstorm is laughing or crying right now, but either way, I’m intrigued to see how officials going forward will balance public safety with the pressures of innovation because what’s clear is that the can is well and truly open, so there’s no going back now.