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.