E-commerce is no longer novel. Online shopping delivered to one’s doorstep has become a typical millennial lifestyle. The backbone of the e-commerce industry is the shipping and logistics sector. However, of the biggest challenges for shipping companies is the timely delivery of orders at the lowest possible cost.
Digitalization has helped by providing real-time tracking of goods and mapping the fastest shipping routes. But the logistics sector continues to search for advances and alternative means of transport. Drones are offering one.
Drones are fast, track-able, eco-friendly, and capable of safely and cost-effectively delivering goods to exact locations. They can fly high enough to avoid traffic and low enough not to create a risk to aircraft. Drones have also proven to be the most cost-effective delivery method, giving them massive leverage in the future of shipping.
In this article, we’ll explore the drone delivery concept, assessing the benefits and challenges as a viable shipping form.
What are drones?
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles or aircraft. They’re typically robotic quadcopters that can be controlled remotely or operated autonomously using software-based flight plans.
Drones were first developed for military use to operate as platforms for weaponry, spy cameras, and anti-aircraft targeting. They’ve since found use in several industries and applications, including disaster management, search and rescue, firefighting, surveillance, weather monitoring, agriculture, traffic and infrastructure monitoring, delivery operations, and others.
Delivery by drones
The drones used for package delivery are called cargo freight drones. Amazon was the first company to begin drone delivery in 2013. Others followed suit, including Google, FedEx, UPS, and Wal-Mart. A few notable drone delivery companies include Zipline, Google Wing, and Matternet. Drones are used to deliver everything and anything from consumer goods, groceries, and meals, to medical supplies and home care products.
Drones do not use fuel but can still travel significant ranges, saving shipping costs. These robots are fast, eco-friendly, and profitable. Drones cut 40 to 70% of operational costs compared to vehicle delivery services.
During the pandemic, drones proved to be a viable shipping option that offered contactless delivery. Currently, about 20,000 drones are operating for retail deliveries and that number is expected to surpass one million by 2026.
How does drone delivery work?
Typically, when an order is received for shipment, it’s packed by a fulfillment warehouse and sent to a dispatch center using a vehicle delivery service. Drones are sometimes used next.
From the dispatch center, the drone carries the package (also known as the payload) to a specific location either through road-bound navigation or the shortest route flight plan. Some companies use a physical dispatch base while others use mobile vans.
The drone’s flight path is managed by GPS-based navigation and might involve a remote control by a drone pilot. Drones can fly 16~20 km. Ground support is available in case of drone error, malfunction (for example, if the battery dies), or accident. However, accidents are unlikely because drones are equipped with an anti-collision system. A detection and avoidance system typically uses built-in cameras and sonar sensors.
Customers are provided with a QR-marked mat to pinpoint the drop-off location. Upon arrival, the drone lowers the payload to the marked QR-code location. It scans the code to verify the location and delivery.
The pros of drone delivery include…
1. Faster deliveries: Often, the last few miles of delivery are the slowest and most cumbersome. Traffic and roadwork are the biggest obstacles, as is sometimes finding the correct address. Drones can take the shortest flight path to a location identified by user-provided GPS coordinates, ensuring accuracy. Drones can fly quickly as there are no speed limits like on roadways.
2. Access to remote areas: With drones, delivering to remote rural areas or hard-to-reach locations is simple. Unlike vehicle delivery systems, drones are unaffected by terrain and can reach places without roads.
3. Eco-friendly shipping: Drones are battery-operated, requiring no fuel. Drone delivery operations cut carbon emissions and help combat climate change.
4. Profitability: Drones cut 40 to 70% of operational costs. Other than the cost of the drones, the only additional expenses are electricity (for battery charging) and maintenance.
5. Flexibility. Cargo freight drones can transport payloads as heavy as two tons and carry various packages typically delivered by e-commerce and retail operators.
Despite launching in 2013, drone technology is still in development. Drones can reach nearly any location, but their flight has a limited range and are typically only used in the final mile or so of a drop-off location. In the long-term, drone deliveries save money but initially the costs of set-up and implementation are high and a deterrent for many logistics companies. Regular maintenance, protocol compliance, and ground support are critical and add to a company’s expenses.
Delivery operators must ensure a safe and careful flight plan, which can be challenging when navigating high rises and certain infrastructure or terrain (like mountain ranges). Operation is also dependent on the weather conditions. Drones are not ideal for use in rain, snow, or high winds.
Additionally, it’s imperative to ensure delivery drones are never misused or hacked for something malicious. Drones still lack full public acceptance due to privacy, security, and safety concerns.
Another challenge in adopting more drones for retail deliveries is regulation. Drone flights must follow strict protocols relating to licensing, flight paths, and safety regulations. And despite the best detection and avoidance system, accidents have happened.
Drone delivery might be the future of logistics operations but operators require skilled and experienced drone pilots, as well as ground support and maintenance personnel to ensure success.
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