Rise of the Machines: The Revolution of Drone Delivery Services

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With all the crazy technology out there, it seems as if we’re living in a time of science fiction. From hoverboards to smartphones that allow us to carry a world’s wealth of knowledge in our pockets, there’s no shortage of imagination and innovation in the realm of technology. But if there’s one machine you should get familiar with, it’d be none other than those four-armed flying things in the sky: that’s right, I’m talking about drones.

Also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or simply unmanned aircraft (UAs), drones are rapidly becoming mankind’s best friend, being employed in more ways than you can shake a stick at. Outside of their original military applications (dating all the way back to the mid-1800s when the Austrian Empire bombed Venice with unmanned, ordinance-filled balloons), the past few decades have seen drones fill a variety of roles from aerial photography and information gathering, researching inaccessible or hard-to-reach areas, and delivering goods and equipment quickly over short distances.

A DHL drone on its way to deliver a package | image source: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

Despite this long history, drones used for commercial delivery only started gaining attention around 2013 when Germany’s Deutsche Post AG subsidiary DHL conducted tests on delivering small shipments of medicine and food to remote areas. The same year, Amazon announced its own intentions to build an air delivery program (now called Prime Air) amid initial skepticism. While it does have its detractors, drone application has only increased since — and with some of the benefits they bring, this trend doesn’t look like it’ll be slowing down any time soon.

In the case of drone delivery, there are two main benefits: a decrease in delivery time (something Amazon likes to refer to as “rapid parcel delivery”) and a decrease in human labor and ground delivery costs. While still in testing, Amazon Prime Air is “designed to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less,” shipping directly from warehouse to door and bypassing street traffic that delivery trucks have to navigate. Moreover, by using “sense and avoid” technology, Prime Air drones can safely operate beyond 10 miles from their origin on their own, negating the cost for a delivery driver to actually get the package to the customer on the other end.

These tests, however, haven’t been without their hiccups: aside from questions about shared airspace between UAVs and larger craft such as commercial and passenger planes, delivery drones are being scrutinized by comparison to their traditional wheeled delivery truck counterparts. For example, a single delivery truck can carry multiple parcels and multiple customers and remain in the field longer to deliver them, while current drone designs only support light parcel loads and require pickups after each drop-off. Delivery companies and their researchers remain optimistic in that, if not finding more efficient ways to use current drone designs to deliver packages, heavier duty drone designs that can carry larger or multiple packages are also in the works, most notably by Google X’s Project Wing initiative that’s been openly tested since August 2014. Criticism aside, things are still looking bright for these UAVs.

A prototype delivery drone for Amazon Prime Air | image source: Amazon

ARK Invest analyst Tasha Keeney suggested last year that drone delivery might actually be a sound investment in Amazon’s case, actually providing a profit from overall low delivery costs in comparison to other available methods:

“Customers will enjoy low cost and convenience, while Amazon stands to make a considerable profit. At $1 per package, Amazon’s internal rate of return on its UAV investments should exceed 50%. Because delivery of a five pound package will cost $0.88, the margin will allow Amazon to break even after the first year, […] achievable even with estimates for infrastructure, drone investment, and operating expenses, which are primarily labor driven.”

Amazon, Google, and DHL aren’t the only ones hopping on the drone delivery trend either. Aside from getting medical supplies to inaccessible areas, a Dutch student developed a prototype UAV to quickly deploy emergency medical equipment such as heart defibrillators while a paramedic-operator can instruct those helping the victim from a remote location. Conversely, a British franchise of Domino’s has been experimenting with a “Domicopter” concept to bypass ground traffic and deliver delicious pizza directly to their customers. Whether or not the drones that fight heart attacks try to get in a fight with the ones that might encourage them remains to be seen.

As for the outlook on delivery drones, it’s safe to say they’re going to be around for quite some time. Though delivery companies aren’t the only ones taking advantage. One major concern in the United States has been the use of drones to smuggle drugs and contraband beyond international borders. To combat this, the Federal Aviation Administration (or FAA) has passed an interim rule that came into effect last December outlining registration requirements for all owners of drones weighing between 250 grams and 55 pounds. Failure to comply puts owners at risk of being charged with civil penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties of up to $250,000 as well as up to three years in prison. But have no fear: as technology evolves and our understanding and appreciation for drones and all of their applications improves, pioneering companies like Amazon and Google have been working with regulators to find solutions that best suit everyone’s interests. Just how that’ll come about… well… only time will tell.

If only drones could deliver answers in under 30 minutes too.

 


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