Logistics

Are Automated Drone Deliveries the Sustainable Future of Logistics?

eCommerce delivery drones still feel like they belong in a sci-fi movie! The concept of flying delivery drones and four-wheel robots becoming a common delivery option is hard to picture. However, with huge environmental upside, combined with increased delivery speed and reduced cost, it's not surprising that every major logistics company is investing heavily in this space making this alien concept closer to reality than you might think

How would you feel if your online orders were delivered by flying automated drone deliveries? Or perhaps a six-wheeled delivery drone robot zooming around the footpaths in your local neighbourhood?

You might find automated drone deliveries to be a bizarre concept. Perhaps even just the thought of a machine delivering your goods feels downright creepy – especially when it comes right to your front door.

But what if your package arrived a mere 30 minutes after placing the order?

Amazon Prime Air Delivery Drone
Amazon Prime Air Delivery Drone. Source: amazon.com

For many people, that fact alone might be enough to tip the scales – and it’s a vision that many eCommerce and parcel delivery companies are trying to make a reality as quickly as possible.

But while the thought of faster, cheaper, and emission-free deliveries sounds great in theory – autonomous technology is already raising many important questions. Are we ready for unmanned robots filling our skies and footpaths? How safe are they? Are they good for the environment? And can legislation keep up with the technology?

Based on the amount of investment, development, and testing going on around the world, it seems that whether we like it or not, autonomous deliveries are coming sooner than we think – and some are already happening right now.

Why Is There So Much Interest in Delivery Drones?

The race to develop automated drone deliveries – using either flying drones or wheeled robots – is being driven by two main goals: faster deliveries and lower costs.

Last-mile delivery – particularly in dense urban areas – is often expensive and inefficient, requiring trucks and vans to make frequent stops while adding to traffic congestion and carbon emissions. As eCommerce continues to grow in popularity, many orders now contain just one or two small items, driving online retailers and parcel delivery companies to seek faster, cheaper – and ideally, greener – forms of delivery.

“Last-mile delivery is the most expensive and inefficient part of the whole supply chain.”

Jeff Zhang, President, Alibaba Cloud Intelligence

In terms of cost, robots and drones have distinct advantages over human drivers, particularly as they can work autonomously, day or night, and without wages, holidays, or sick leave. With the meteoric rise of electric vehicles, battery technology is improving almost on a daily basis, yielding new versions that are smaller, lighter, more powerful, and faster to charge. These rapid improvements, coupled with the exponential growth of battery manufacturing – which has driven prices down almost 50% in the last three years – continue to make drones and robots cheaper to manufacture and operate.

On an environmental level, autonomous drones can significantly reduce the number of delivery trucks and vans on the road. And because they’re fully-electric, they have the potential to be powered by renewable energy – creating 100% emission-free deliveries.

How Do Delivery Drones Work?

Although it may sound futuristic, the basic concept of a delivery drone is relatively simple: it’s an autonomous machine that uses GPS to transport a parcel to a designated location.

But of course, taking this basic idea and turning it into a reliable, safe, and scalable solution is where things get very complicated.

In the world of autonomous delivery, there are two main concepts in development:

1. Flying Delivery Drones

Flying delivery drones, also known as “rotary drones”, which are similar to the consumer models that have become popular in recent years. Drones are battery-powered and feature a series of small propellers that allow them to move up, down, forwards, or backwards, and stop or change direction with ease.

Most delivery drones are designed to carry small parcels over a relatively short distance, either from a delivery truck or a local distribution centre. While some models are controlled by humans, many are now completely autonomous – using GPS, satellites, and internal sensors to deliver parcels to a designated location while avoiding obstacles.

UPS Flight Forward Automated Drone Deliveries
UPS Flight Forward Automated Drone Deliveries. Source: ups.com

2. Package Delivery Robots

Package delivery robots that travel along footpaths at the speed of a slow jog. Models generally have four or six small wheels and weigh around 40 kg. They use a combination of GPS, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and artificial intelligence to navigate to the delivery location while avoiding pedestrians, animals, and other obstructions along the way.

Packages are electronically locked inside and can only be accessed by the recipient via a smartphone app, which also provides tracking prior to delivery.

Amazon Scout Delivery Drone
Amazon Scout Delivery Drone. Source: amazon.com

Which Companies are Developing Drones?

In much the same way that electric and self-driving cars have become the focus of every major automaker, virtually every large eCommerce and delivery company is investing substantial time, money, and effort into developing automated drone deliveries as quickly as possible.

Amazon

Amazon, for example, has been running its “Prime Air” division since 2016, with the future goal of using flying drones to deliver orders in under 30 minutes. Its current generation of drones can transport packages of up to 2.2 kg over a distance of 24 km before needing to recharge.

Amazon currently has development centres in the US, UK, Austria, Israel, and France, and says it is testing drones in many other locations around the world.

Amazon also has a six-wheeled delivery robot, known as “Scout”, which it is currently trialling in states across the USA.

UPS

Global delivery company UPS has developed the “Flight Forward” program, and claims to be the first company with “Part 135 Standard Certification” from the US Federal Aviation Administration. This approval allows UPS drones to carry loads above 25 kg, navigate out of the line of sight, and fly both day and night.

The Flight Forward program was initially conceived as a method of delivering urgent medical supplies, but has quickly taken hold in the field of eCommerce delivery. UPS’s drones can deploy from a delivery truck and make one delivery while the human driver makes another, before returning to the vehicle at its current location.

Alibaba

Chinese eCommerce giant Alibaba recently launched a package delivery robot called “Xiaomanlv”. The four-wheeled robot can deliver up to 500 packages a day within a single neighbourhood or campus, carrying up to 50 parcels at a time over a 100 km distance.

The launch of Alibaba’s automated drone deliveries robots has been accelerated by the Coronavirus pandemic, in addition to China’s rising labour costs.

“The demographic dividend in China will disappear in the future, and the cost of human labour will be much higher. Using machines in the future to solve last-mile delivery is a must.”

Zhao Yue, Researcher, Analysys

Google

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, also has a flying drone company known simply as “Wing”, which claims to have already made 100,000 test flights over the last four years. In Australia, Wing is offering trial deliveries to areas of Canberra via selected local businesses including cafes and restaurants. Wing’s autonomous drones appear to be some of the most advanced, covering round-trip distances of 20km at speeds of up to 113 km/h.

Are Delivery Drones Better for the Environment?

Despite improvements in fuel-efficiency and the rise of electric vehicles, the commercial transport sector remains one of the world’s biggest sources of greenhouse gasses. In the USA, transport is responsible for 28% of total carbon emissions, with delivery vehicles such as medium and heavy-duty trucks responsible for around a quarter of that figure.

With changing consumer attitudes, and governments imposing strict environmental targets, most global eCommerce and parcel delivery companies have announced ambitious plans to decarbonise their supply chains and delivery networks. And while electric vehicles have garnered much of the attention – and understandably so – autonomous drones and robots are actually a critical element of many of their carbon-reduction strategies.

“Delivery bots, RDVs, and drones are set to displace millions of truck and van deliveries over the next decade, as they are far smaller, more flexible, lower in cost, and naturally suitable for automation and electrification.”

Ryan Citron, Navigant Research

When it comes to assessing the environmental impacts of automated drones and robots, there are many factors that need consideration:

  • Where they deploy from and how far they travel
  • Their size of weight
  • The size and weight of their package(s)
  • The type of battery technology used
  • Source of electricity – including the percentage of renewables in the local grid
  • The number of additional warehouses needed to store drones and meet demand

Despite all of the variables, flying drones are more environmentally-friendly than petrol and diesel trucks in almost every scenario. Smithsonian Magazine found that when they were used to deliver small packages over short distances, emissions were between 23% and 54% lower than that of trucks – depending on the share of renewable energy in the local grid.

As flying delivery drones increase in size, their environmental benefits reduce, as they require more batteries and energy to travel each kilometre. The Smithsonian report concluded that while drones were still marginally cleaner than diesel trucks when shipping larger items, there may be more benefit in using electric delivery vehicles instead.

Delivery robots offer similar environmental benefits, as they use electricity instead of petrol or diesel and help to reduce the number of trucks and vans on the road. And because wheeled robots can arrive within very short timeframes, they have the potential to significantly reduce the billions of missed and re-attempted deliveries every year.

Of course, the ideal scenario is for all electric drones and robots to recharge using on-site renewable energy such as rooftop solar panels, which would make every delivery truly emission-free while substantially lowering operating costs.

With the rapid uptake of solar a wind around the world, it seems that all forms of electric parcel delivery – such as flying drones, delivery robots, and electric vans – will only become greener as time goes on.

The Complicated Legalities of Autonomous Deliveries

Despite the unique benefits to eCommerce companies, there are many complicated legal and legislative factors still to be addressed before autonomous drones become a mainstream solution.

Of course, there are obvious questions around security, safety, and liability. What happens when they collide with pedestrians, animals, or objects? Will they become immediate targets of theft and vandalism? What happens if a drone falls out of the sky and lands on a person or property?

And while there might not be a lot of clear-cut answers at this stage – negotiations are well and truly underway.

In the US, Amazon and FedEx are working behind the scenes with at least a dozen states on legislation allowing the use of delivery robots – with six states already passing bills. But despite enticing promises of big investment and additional business growth, many governments are hesitant to give the green light until there’s a better understanding of how the technology works in the real world.

Fedex Automated Delivery Drones
Fedex Automated Drones Deliveries. Source: Fedex.com

Within the various bills are rules about the size and weight of delivery robots, their movement speed, and their ability to safely navigate around people, objects, and animals.

“I’m worried about it walking up on a person and losing control, or getting stuck in a pothole, or climbing up a person’s porch and falling through.”

Adam Hollier, Michigan State Senator

America’s flying delivery drones fall under the jurisdiction of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), which currently demands that all models – whether hobby or commercial – must remain within a visible line of sight at all times and fly no higher than 120 metres. Then there are also rules regarding airspace restrictions, weather conditions, and safety measures in the event of mid-flight drone failures.

Amazon, UPS, and Alphabet are among the largest companies to secure FAA approval as official “drone airlines”, allowing them to commence trial deliveries under strict guidelines. With the rapid emergence of fully-autonomous drones – and particularly ones that interact with people – it seems as though a lot of the new legislation is being written from the ground-up.

Are We Ready for Robots to Deliver Our Packages?

Despite the unanswered questions regarding safety and liability, perhaps the biggest concern is simply whether we are ready to accept autonomous machines populating our skies, footpaths, and neighbourhoods. But at least as far as the major eCommerce and logistics companies are concerned, the pros of automated drone deliveries will quickly outweigh the cons.

“No one wants hundreds of annoying gnats flying over their homes every day, but very few people will care if our aircraft flies over because they won’t hear it. And unless they’re looking, they won’t see it.”

John Graber, Workhorse Group

Even with exhaustive legal negotiations and pilot programs around the world, there will undoubtedly be a lot of trial-and-error as the new technology rolls out. Every company might be following the mantra of “safety is our highest priority”, but nobody really knows what to expect once drones start delivering packages at scale – and who takes the blame if something goes wrong.

But one this is clear; if we thought eCommerce changed a lot in the last five years – the next five will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

And while some of us may never fully accept machines delivering our packages, the appeal of receiving orders within minutes rather than days will undoubtedly be too hard for many people to ignore.

Further Reading: Sustainable eCommerce Delivery: Magway. Read More

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