Following news that the UK government has inked a deal with Amazon to trial drone delivery under British skies, further opportunities could exist for consumer-focused application of drone technology.
Currently, legislation in most of the world allows the use of drones only where they remain within the pilot’s line of sight and each pilot operates a single drone – which would render unfeasible any large-scale delivery program such as Amazon’s proposed Prime Air.
“Drone trials with the UK government may indicate that there’s room for the current UK legislation to change, assuming safety and privacy can be maintained,” says Jon Sleeman, director of industrial and logistics research at JLL.
Where drones dare fly
Amazon’s drone program, which is currently in development centers in the UK, U.S., Israel and Austria, will test three key aspects required for drone delivery to get off the ground – flights that travel beyond the line of sight of the pilot, obstacle avoidance, and a single pilot manning multiple drones.
It’s not the only big brand eyeing up the sky – Google has claimed it will have delivery drones in service as soon as next year, and U.S. retail chain Walmart is reportedly developing its own fleet, too. Supply chains, it seems, could be key beneficiaries.
“There is an opportunity for drone delivery in areas that are remote or difficult to access,” Sleeman says. For example, the mountainous, rugged terrain of Switzerland has been a useful testing ground for Swiss Post drones to get critical deliveries to isolated regions, while DHL experimented with drones to courier small items from the German town of Reit im Winkl to a mountain plateau 1,200 meters above sea level.
Delivering over water – for example, to islands – are another way drones could be more efficient than well-established courier methods.
Drones could also be instrumental in relief efforts to regions cut off by natural disasters. Recent trials in New Jersey resulted in the first ship-to-shore drone delivery, with the team behind the effort estimating drones could be a routine part of disaster programs in five years.
“I’m skeptical about the potential of drones for home delivery of online orders when we’re talking about high-density populations that are already serviced by developed infrastructure,” Sleeman says.
In most of Europe, drones are not allowed within 50 metres of a building or person, or within 150 meters of a built-up area – though Poland, which has drafted laws that accommodate flight outside line-of-sight, is the exception that could lead the rest of the continent.
However, even if legislation changes, “a significant challenge is the limited radius a drone can currently travel – about 10-12 miles,” Sleeman says.
Supply chains used by mega-retailers are built around remote warehouses served by trucks and vans that deliver parcels to regional distribution centers and consumers. For drones to be a widespread delivery method, distribution networks would need far more warehouses – and presumably much smaller ones – in order to service enough of the population, Sleeman says.
The delivery process would also need to ensure parcels reach their intended recipient. “A drone carrying sensitive or dangerous good that falls in the wrong hands could cause a lot of problems,” he adds.
Drones have a two-pound payload – the weight of the parcel they can carry – and can generally carry one at a time, making a single drone delivery a more expensive method than vans and trucks.
“Retailers don’t make money from home delivery as it is,” Sleeman says. “Are consumers ready to pay a premium rate for drone delivery?”
The roads in the sky
The greatest potential for drone delivery could lie in countries where road infrastructure is poorly developed, Sleeman says, and drones that deliver critical medical supplies can make a life-saving difference.
In Rwanda, where the rainy season can render much of the road network impassable, the world’s first commercial drone delivery service has been launched for blood and vaccines to be delivered to rural health centers.
“The benefits are much clearer and the economics are very different in rural Africa,” Sleeman says. Daily flights delivering medical supplies are expected to launch by September, while construction on the world’s first drone-port – which would allow drones from multiple cargo companies to land and recharge – have also begun. The project envisions a national network of such ports, which would also be used for delivering larger commercial payloads.
The decade of drones?
Consumers now have multiple delivery locations, such as home, the office, a friend’s house and click-to-collect from a retailer directly. In a time of growing expectation for immediacy and “everything everywhere,” Sleeman says, drone delivery can tap into the (near) instant gratification aspect of real-world shopping, allowing consumers to purchase items on their smartphones and have them delivered where they’re standing thirty minutes later.
Should a UK drone delivery trial prove successful – and legislation is expanded to allow more possibilities for drone flight – there is likely to be a great potential for drones to supplement existing delivery infrastructure with ultra-fast and emergency services in Europe, Africa and beyond, particularly to isolated communities and regions.