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Delivery by Drone: Logistics Helper or Hype?

The impressive growth of online retailing has created an enormous logistics issue. Those last 10 miles from the depot to the customer are a nightmare — returned packages, no one home, theft, and misdelivery — never mind the cost of moving products from point A to point B.

Amazon is trying out pickup points at corner shops in Britain and at 7-Eleven stores in the US. Walmart is toying with co-opting customers to make deliveries, and an awful lot of white vans are hitting the streets to make the holidays happier right now.

Still, endpoint delivery is out of sync with how we live and work. We have delivery people going to the third floor of apartment buildings, only to find that there's no one home and no clear instructions on what to do. Packages go back and forth (getting delayed and damaged in the process) and often end up being returned to sender. Even workplaces have problems; parcels are refused because there's no matching order number.

The purchaser pays the price, and it's a multibillion-dollar cost. Shipping costs tell the tale; the cost of getting from here to there accounts for 20% or more of the article's price. It creates delays, frustration, and anxieties that are best avoided.

Enter the drone. According to the hype, pizzas and exercise bikes will be arriving from the depot on a high-tech magic carpet. We've had successful demos of how this is done, but is it real? Amazon surely thinks so. Watch this promotional video from its recently announced drone delivery plan:

There are a lot of questions to be answered about the drone delivery approach. First, is it cost effective? A trained drone operator has to fly the unit with a joystick. This is undoubtedly not a job for anyone older than 24, but that doesn't remove the human cost from the equation.

There are also questions of cost risk by product type. What works for a pizza may not work for an exercise bike. When a pizza is ordered, the buyer can set up a firm location and time for delivery. “I'm at home” is all it takes. That removes almost all the cost risk. That's why the home delivery system we all use (by car) works so well.

Then there's the safety issue. The US Air Force breaks a lot of very sophisticated drones. It flies them by remote control, instead of using autopilot for everything as the Army does. How many piloted pizza drones will crash and burn? It's going to be a high stressful for equipment and pilots, and safety accordingly is a big issue. Flocks of drones above, say, a McDonald's would need an air traffic controller, or else the children using the restaurant's playground would need helmets and body armor. We aren't able to hack that yet.

And then there's the issue of noise. Flying lawnmowers at 10:00 p.m.? Not in my backyard, thank you.

All in all, the imminence of drones for logistics looks like hype — pure and simple. Perhaps the problems can be resolved. Automated drones could work, but odds are we will have automated cars first, and that's still a few years off.

In the meantime, that last-10-miles issue needs a fix or two. A lot of the problems go away if the deliverer knows someone will be home, so the first thing to add to the computer program is a time-to-deliver option in which the recipient provides delivery windows. Second, make available provisions by mobile device for alternate dropoff. It's nearly impossible now to tell the carrier to leave a package at the apartment office and have the office let you know it's there. Yet this could be standard practice if no one is home. Again, a smartphone notification is trivial to set up.

These suggestions don't solve all the problems. For those who don't have smartphones, delivery to a dropoff point might make more sense and should be in the shipping instructions. However, with a few simple procedural changes and a couple of changes to web pages, most of the driving force for the drones can be eliminated. The hype factor is another story. A phone app is hardly likely to get time on the evening news the way a drone would.

What are your thoughts on using drones to solve logistics issues? Share your opinion in the comment section below.

54 comments on “Delivery by Drone: Logistics Helper or Hype?

  1. Houngbo_Hospice
    December 18, 2013

    Will it cost less to deliver packages with drones? If that is the case, I think it will be more a logistics helper than a pipe dream.

  2. Daniel
    December 18, 2013

    “Enter the drone. According to the hype, pizzas and exercise bikes will be arriving from the depot on a high-tech magic carpet. We've had successful demos of how this is done, but is it real? Amazon surely thinks so. Watch this promotional video from its recently announced drone delivery plan:”

    Jim, idea is good but has to clear lots of hurdle like air traffic clearance, proper coordination with GPS for correct delivery and finally it may be expensive too. the big challenge is each customer has to identify and provide their location coordinates, while placing the order.

  3. Daniel
    December 18, 2013

    “Will it cost less to deliver packages with drones? If that is the case, I think it will be more a logistics helper than a pipe dream.”

    HH, no chances. It may be costlier because of vehicle cost, frequent sinking with GPS, air access permission from air traffic controller etc.

  4. prabhakar_deosthali
    December 19, 2013

    In my opinion, if the drones are made self navigating, which means, given a destination address , they are able to navigate through the current drone traffic in air and reach the destination without any help from a remote pilot or air traffic controller , then they become a viable alternative to the delivery by road.

     

    With the aid of mobile technology and smart phones , it may also be possible for the drones to track their destination if it is moving, say to deliver a  pizza to somebody taking a leisure walk in the garden or in the house backyard.

  5. JimOReilly
    December 19, 2013

    @Prabhakar, GPS accuracy is at best 50ft and worse in cities.

    Further, if the drone idea became common, all those drones buzzing around would have to avoid each other, and that isn't going to happen with current technology.

  6. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    December 19, 2013

    if we could make it work, it would be an intersting thing for hiring. We have a bunch of Gen Y folks who have spent thier lives playing video games…and are probably well suited to the job of drone pilot!

  7. JimOReilly
    December 19, 2013

    Hailey, That's scary! Most of the Gen Y played action games with lots of gore. We'd better get the body armor out! Flying pizza bombs????

  8. JimOReilly
    December 19, 2013

    Joking apart…Didn't the US Army do just that. I understand it worked well, with 25 percent of the crashes seen with Air Force pilots! I think the Army mandates computer controlled landings!

  9. ahdand
    December 20, 2013

    True and still the action figures are so popular among many regardless of the age group.            

  10. Pavelar
    December 20, 2013

    I agree with a lot of the comments already described, what I think we are missing is that it's nice to see companies think forward, it always seems we see innovation from defense spending or sadly the movies aka Star Trek etc. it's great to see that companies are thinking, certainly there is a bit of self promotion here, I have no doubt of the value of the free publicity that Amazon got with this , the first thing you will think when you think about Amazon is innovative ideas. Bringing us back to reality is that these drones are not practical even if all the problems mentioned are solved, loss prevention will make sure of that, and sure theft will be a big part of it but how many lost drones can a company risk? There is plenty of information on how to hack a drone and I have no doubt that this will be a reality with anything that is developed, would be simple for a hacker to redirect a drone to a parking lot, less sophisticated then that is as my son told me, dad you can hit it with a rock as it flys by. In the future we will be seeing people in alleys whispering, hey I have a deal for you that “fell off a drone” What I do see happening though is the drones being used for hub to hub deliveries, imagine drones back and forth to fedex, ups facilities making hourly drop offs,. I love the discussion and ideas that spawn from concepts like this.

  11. JimOReilly
    December 20, 2013

    @pavelar, the discussion is really intersting! The practicality issue isn't just an Amazon thing. The new DARPA pack-robot is about as practical as a three legged camel…but the idea is heading in the right direction.

  12. Adeniji Kayode
    December 20, 2013

    @Hospice Do you think it will be cheaper compared with normal delivery methods. since it a matter of choice, you will definately pay more for such service.

  13. Adeniji Kayode
    December 20, 2013

    @Jacob, you are right on that. moreso, who is resposible if somebody else take the delivery before the owner comes?

  14. Adeniji Kayode
    December 20, 2013

    @ Hailey, it a question of time. its definitely better than road delivery and therefore would gain more supports.

  15. Adeniji Kayode
    December 20, 2013

    @ pavelar, of course, innovations win you attentions. T h ere is no way Amazon would employ the service of drons That iT would get more attention from comsumers who want their stuffs delivered on time. heir ioms

  16. Daniel
    December 22, 2013

    “you are right on that. moreso, who is resposible if somebody else take the delivery before the owner comes?”

    Adeniji, solutions for such unidentified problems are yet to derive or identify.

  17. Wale Bakare
    December 23, 2013

    @Adeniji, you would expect to pay more for prompt service delivery. If you want your order(s) delivered within 3/4/5 hours you would probably pay more for such service.

  18. Wale Bakare
    December 23, 2013

    Why did you say so? Bear in mind that Amazon said the drone would come to commercial use in years to come – may be  5 years time. Within those years skepticism and challenges over drone usage for public would have sought clarifications and/or regulation.

  19. itguyphil
    December 23, 2013

    In my mind, theft if my biggest concern. How do they mitigate that risk?

  20. _hm
    December 23, 2013

    I think autos are more effective, lower in cost, safer and proven technology as compare to drones. The only new concept here is auotmation in delivery without humane. Soon, we will have automated cars plying on the roads and they too can deliver parcels as required. Advantage is that they can carry multiple delivery, are proven and safer way of transport.

     

     

     

  21. JimOReilly
    December 24, 2013

    It being Xmas, I'm surprised no-one put up Santa drones to fly around chimneys!

  22. Wale Bakare
    December 24, 2013

    Yeah, i cant disagree with you. Hacking would be a major challenge.

  23. SunitaT
    December 26, 2013

    I usually shop from Amazon and my local delivery/courier service usually calls me at the morning, asking further instructions. If I happen to be in my home then I call them to bring it in, otherwise I go and physically take the parcel from their hands. Although this works for me because I live in a small town, for somebody who lives in a metropolis, it would be tough. As for the drone delivery in equation, the author pointed out the problems. Moreover it adds new dimensions to air traffic control systems, which is rather problematic because without the right communicating systems, this can be a disaster.

  24. SunitaT
    December 26, 2013

    Amazon likens the idea to a physical delivery system, because the drones reduce the human element from the equation and therefore reduce costs, increase efficiency and time of delivery. However, as keen as Amazon is for this kind of technology, they wouldn't do anything for a mere “concept”. They would always go for assured delivery systems having an assembly line. Automated cars may be a temporary solution.

  25. JimOReilly
    December 26, 2013

    I have visions of a robot car making a delivery by driving up and tossing the parcel at the driveway!

    Still, robot trucks make more sense.

  26. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    December 30, 2013

    @Jim, i see an opportunity for Amazon to develop its own game…maybe Drone Delivery Wars…you get points for intact package delivery and customer satisfaction scores. Whoever consistently gets a top score gets offered a job at Amazon. think it would work?

  27. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    December 30, 2013

    I picture this as a premium delivery option the way overnight delivery was and is. I'm sure it will never be less costly than other methods but if you needed something desperately in a few hours it might be the way to go.

  28. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    December 30, 2013

    @Pavelar I'm glad you chimed in! You make some excellent points. Today, there is a huge marketing boost and branding opportunity rather than real world service with drones. Unless organizations are willing to think in new ways, though, we won't move forward. I'm with you…I love these discussions!

  29. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    December 30, 2013

    @Jim, we have self driving cars now…Could robot trucks be far behind? It's going to be really interesting.

  30. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    December 30, 2013
  31. ahdand
    December 30, 2013

    @Hailey: IMO, I feel the involvement of robots is too risky. I think it's good as long as its being controllable but not given 100% access. If not it's a risky thing. 

  32. JimOReilly
    December 30, 2013

    Amazon didn't hire enough reindeer this year. Maybe they planned for drone deliveries!

  33. JimOReilly
    December 30, 2013

    Brown robo-trucks? Definitely, and they'll be fitted with an arm to throw your new TV over the fence!

  34. JimOReilly
    December 30, 2013

    It will work right up to when the 8-year-old UPS droner runs into a Fedex droner and decides to duke it out!

  35. ahdand
    December 31, 2013

    @jim: Yes a good one. I think centralizing all the courier services would be something which should be given some sort of a thought of. Any ideas on that ?      

  36. ahdand
    December 31, 2013

    @Jim: Just one piece of advice. IMO technology should be re-used as much as possible due to the cost factor.       

  37. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    December 31, 2013

    @Nimantha, robots are  a reality in manufacturing. I imagine they could be very useful in package delviery too. Maybe not DRIVING the trucks..but sorting? Who knows.

  38. Adeniji Kayode
    December 31, 2013

    @ prabhakar, That is a wonderful way we can get the best out of these delivery drones but if we count the cost, will this still be at the same price with the formal destination. if these drones are running on fuel, will it be able to make it back to base or this would hzve been checked before leaving?

  39. Adeniji Kayode
    December 31, 2013

    @ Hailey, I agree with you on that. I think sorting is still within the jurisdiction of what robots c a n do but driving and delivering orders may still have to wait for their turns.

  40. Adeniji Kayode
    December 31, 2013

    @ _hm you mean something close to the syfi ” KNIGHT RIDER “.

  41. JimOReilly
    December 31, 2013

    A single service simplifies things. Maybe USPS gets a drone monopoly.

  42. Adeniji Kayode
    December 31, 2013

    @ tirlapur, You made good point there. Don,t you also think that the use of drons would reveal “who” orders “what”.

  43. Adeniji Kayode
    December 31, 2013

    @ Hailey, you are right. Quick deliveries may also help to save more lives.

  44. Adeniji Kayode
    December 31, 2013

    @pocharle, Do you mean ” hacking” to redirect deliveries from their original destination?

  45. itguyphil
    December 31, 2013

    It IS a major challenge, in so many arenas. THe problem is most people don't take it seriously enough.

  46. itguyphil
    December 31, 2013

    Whatever illicit purpose it's meant for. I'm sure I can't enumerate all of the possibiliteis but I know a lot exist.

  47. Daniel
    December 31, 2013

    “I picture this as a premium delivery option the way overnight delivery was and is. I'm sure it will never be less costly than other methods but if you needed something desperately in a few hours it might be the way to go.”

    Hailey, if cost factor is neglected; then anything can be delivered at a supersonic speed. Actually the solution required is speedy delivery and minimal cost.

  48. Eldredge
    January 8, 2014

    Recently, a town in Arizona was in the headlines for placing a bounty on shooting drones….could be a significant issue for Walmart's proposal as well.

  49. Eldredge
    January 8, 2014

    Recently, a town in Arizona was in the headlines for placing a bounty on shooting drones….could be a significant issue for Walmart's proposal as well.

  50. JimOReilly
    January 9, 2014

    That could be a real problem for Target 🙂

  51. Eldredge
    January 9, 2014

    Particularly if they use their company logo on any part of the drone. Too tempting to resist!

  52. JimOReilly
    January 10, 2014

    I think we just uncovered another use for drones…Replacing planes towing banners!

  53. SunitaT
    February 22, 2014

    In a more social perspective, drones can really be helpful for providing subsistence in regions isolated by flood or any other natural calamities quicker and save a lot many lives.

  54. JimOReilly
    February 22, 2014

    Drones can do a better job searching for victims too.

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