Drone Shipping: The Future of Delivery?
How Did It Begin?
Ten years ago if somebody told us that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or simply drones) will be used in mail deliveries we probably would have expected it to happen in the distant future. But over the past few years, drone delivery has become less of science fiction and more of a reality. Today, drones are used in various industries for different purposes such as wildlife conservation, emergency rescue, and military operations.
Mail delivery is another sector that has seen major investments and improvements in drone usage. The leading carriers like UPS, FedEx, DHL, Amazon, etc. have been exploring how to implement drone delivery to improve efficiency, lower carbon emissions, and provide cost reduction. As drones are electric vehicles, they are also often claimed to be an eco-friendly means of transportation. Lowering carbon emissions of fuel-based transportation for moving goods is another benefit that drones propose to the world.
Everything seems utopian at first, however when we take a look at the latest developments in the field, that might not be the case. Let’s take a look together at what’s happening in the field, and try to answer the question: Is drone shipping the future of delivery?
Companies That Use Drones for Delivery
Over the last ten years, many companies around the world started exploring their options to use drones to achieve better results in delivery. UPS and Wing became the first businesses to be approved by the FAA to operate a drone airline in 2019. Amazon obtained the same clearance certificate in 2020. Amazon has set a target of completing drone deliveries within 30 minutes of receiving an order.
According to an FAA fact sheet, small drones must have anti-collision lights and other technologies to assist identify the aircraft and their operators remotely.
Despite the tremendous advancements in drone technology in recent years, there are still several drawbacks to utilizing drones for delivery. Battery life, the risk of damage or loss, the possibility for misuse, and many more. In this article, we will focus on the good and bad sides of drone delivery in comparison to traditional courier services.
Fast and Efficient Delivery
Every major postal company wants to achieve the ultimate efficiency in delivery, and drones can deliver a big amount of packages per day at a very rapid rate. Thanks to the optimized routes that drones follow, traffic conditions are never an issue. Additionally, drones are much more effective when goods need to be delivered to remote locations which are hard to reach with traditional methods. Another efficiency remark is that, because everything is pre-programmed the risk of human error is optimally downsized.
Drones are by far more environmentally friendly than vans, trucks, and planes. Powered by electricity they have almost no CO2 emissions. According to a study published in Nature Communications in 2018, “Results suggest that, if carefully deployed, drone-based delivery could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use in the freight sector.” The use of drones would also save the courier industry potentially billions in labor, fuel, and transportation costs.
Data for the Future
Employing drones for delivery also means data gathering which is a huge plus. Current drone flight plans, for example, can help regulatory authorities plan and monitor drone flight patterns and routes to avoid costly collisions with other drones, buildings, and power lines. The USPS also intends to use UAS to collect sensor and geographical data for self-driving cars.
Limited Battery Life
Drones have a limited battery life which can be tricky when we think about globally employing drones as primary mail delivery units. Traditional couriers on the other hand are still a better option for most companies as they are not limited to a certain distance to travel.
Risks of Theft
As they are unmanned vehicles, drones could easily become the target of thefts. Similarly, any issue like a power outage, weather conditions would be a challenge for companies to consider. A traditional courier is handled by people, so any problem can be immediately addressed. In the case of drones, it would be having a special team that will only focus on the risks while shipping.
The majority of drones are designed to lift packages up to 20 pounds. Most countries have strict guidelines regarding the weight of the cargo. This might be a challenge for big and growing companies that want to use all the benefits that drones offer. Traditional couriers are still the best and safest option for transporting heavy and bulky goods.
Because drone technology is still relatively new. Using the services of drones capable of parcel delivery is currently quite expensive. Companies are working on designing drone models that will decrease costs by achieving a better rate for drone delivery. Right now, the estimated cost per delivery by drone is $0.88, but that’s assuming packages weigh less than five pounds and the delivery is within 10 miles of a warehouse.
Even though one of the good sides that we mentioned about drones was “sustainability”, it does have some drawbacks as well. Right now, there’s a lot of research done on drones and the emissions impact they might have in the coming years. While smaller drones have a lower environmental effect than traditional delivery trucks, drone batteries must be recharged, which requires a power source. Eco-friendly drones must be powered by renewable energy sources, which aren't always accessible.
A scientific article published in 2020 states: “When compared with conventional ground-based delivery by Diesel trucks or electric trucks in a stationary unimodal distribution system, the simulation results indicate that drones consume more energy than Diesel and electric trucks particularly when the customer density is high in rather small areas. Drones consume a comparable or even slightly smaller amount of energy than trucks in rather rural settings with large areas to cover and low customer density provided wind conditions are calm or moderate.”
Right now there are no clear regulations regarding the privacy and surveillance of the customers. For example, when a drone needs to deliver the goods, it needs to surveil the customer’s property. The data might be used in ways that are not regulated and exist in a gray area.
Recently there have been some unexpected developments in drone delivery. In August 2021, Amazon Prime Air winded down a huge part of its UK drone delivery business, resulting in 100 employees losing their jobs and dozens of other roles moved to other projects abroad, while the company terminated part of its operations in the UK.
DHL, the world's first postal service company to directly integrate a drone logistically into its delivery chain, announced terminating the Parcelcopter project. The company's most recent consumer drone delivery prototype was created in 2018. DHL has announced that it would no longer be testing Parcelcopter or manufacturing its drones.
The latest developments make us questions what they mean about the future of drone delivery. Does it mean that it’s a failed attempt of overachievement or would some companies emerge from the crisis stronger and smarter? We’d love to see how these trials and developments play into the greater picture of shipping in the near future—and how that can improve the way PackageHopper can help you!
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