Last-kilometre delivery – When will drones deliver your Christmas presents?

haydn.thompson Friday December 8, 2017

It is Christmas time and although a time of going back to long held traditions the world is changing quickly. One such change is the proliferation of drone technology for commercial applications. Drones are being used for surveillance, law enforcement, agricultural monitoring, and inspection of power lines. Drones are also being used in Africa to deliver medicines to remote locations. Of course current drones have limited payload capabilities and a limited flight time. However, in the commercial sector Amazon is experimenting with the use of aerial drones for delivery of small goods to consumers. Is this a publicity stunt or could it really be the future? Given the expected increase of the volume of goods that will be delivered directly to customers (due to growing online sales) it is clear that distribution centres need to handle a continuously growing number of parcels and goods. One thing that this has resulted in is cities being congested by a multitude of delivery vans. Partly this is due to a lack of loading and unloading areas in urban areas and these days it is not uncommon to see vans parked side by side while temporarily dropping off or collecting goods. One approach to reducing the number of vehicles is to bundle deliveries from different companies so that only one vehicle services a given area. Whether this is possible commercially remains to be seen and requires an unusual level of cooperation between highly competitive companies. So the industry is becoming more and more interested in how to address the “last-kilometre delivery problem” and it is not a surprise that the possibility of using robotic technologies to deliver smaller packages is being considered. There are still a number of hurdles though, not least the need to get certification for drones to fly in urban areas from national authorities. Safety is a primary concern as drones have the capability to injure people and also cause damage to property. A second concern though is privacy and as drones are likely to need a camera in order to operate this is in conflict with “overfly” rules which prohibit operation over private property. So the technology is here to deliver our packages over the last mile but we still need to resolve the safety and privacy issues before this will become the norm. Of course we are limited by the payload carrying capacity of a drone – so I hope that you will not be disappointed by the size of your present!