Weekends in the month of December in Germany are traditionally spent celebrating ‘advent’ (the pre-Christmas season) which means invitations to afternoon coffee and cake. Hence last Saturday I was expected at my Mum’s home. Upon arrival, a DHL van parked in front of the house, delivering a parcel to her neighbours. On entering the house, I was greeted with:
‘They get a parcel almost every day, I doubt they buy anything in a shop ever! In a few years’ time, there will be those drones around the house all the time. And what do you think about these home robots? They will probably need to get one of these as well as they are never at home when a delivery arrives. Someone will have to take the parcel from the drone.’
‘Hi Mum’ (me).
‘Yes, hi. And what happens if no one is collecting the parcel, will these drones than fly it to a neighbour? And what if they malfunction? They could fall in the garden or maybe onto a roof. Are they running with full, they could incinerate something.’
‘Well, I don’t know’ (me again).
‘But you do all that research around that all the time! Well, at least there might be less parcel vans parking in the street. It’s already almost impossible to get through with all the normal cars parking outside.’
I imagine when news broke that Amazon is developing delivery drones similar discussions might have happened around the world. Most will questioned how realistic the news is. Clearly, much of this scenario sounds a bit like a sky-fi movie.
At a second glance, however, there might be more reality in this than many might be ready to accept. In the case of robots, Amazon is already starting to integrate those in their facilities. These are not the robots my Mum mentioned though as she was referring to Roboray – the human-like looking robot developed by Samsung. The Amazon robots will transport merchandise to warehouse staff which will make the picking process much faster as it will avoid workers walking to the shelves to pick items manually. That said, the full integration of robots will likely take several years as existing warehouses are not designed for this technology.
On the subject of drones, personally I do not expect that we will see hundreds of drones flying around delivering parcels (my mom was certainly overreacting). At least to date there are still several issues that will limit the use of drones. In particular, their initial maximum range is expected to be not more than 15km while the maximum weight they can handle is estimated around 2.5kg. In addition, it would likely need a permission from local aviation authorities although the use of drones into airspace – including those for commercial use – will become legal by the end of 2015 in the US and by 2016 in Europe.
However, Amazon’s bold statement triggered a number of comments especially from the leading global parcel delivery services such as DHL and UPS. Both declared to work on their own delivery drone project. At least in the case of DHL the project is aimed at urgently needed goods to hard-to-reach places whereas it aims at goods like pharmaceuticals. There are apparently no plans to roll this out to a wider home delivery. By contrast, UPS as well seems to be keen to get into the delivery drone business also nothing definitive was revealed.
This is without doubt an interesting area. Drones would not be able to handle every product or reach all homes, especially those in the more rural areas. However, in larger cities with high road traffic they could become a valid alternative for some sorts of delivery.
Road congestion is leading to higher transport costs and can jeopardize established drop-off times. This could be especially harming to those retailers offering same or next day home delivery. Many cities and logistics service providers are therefore working on smart ‘last-mile’ delivery systems. The integration of drones in such systems could be closer than many of us have imagined – including logistics facilities equipped with drone landing doors and special drone fuelling stations which ideally should consist of alternative energies!
Caption: Amazon delivery drone
Caption: Amazon’s Kiva System Robots