The United States has been lagging behind other parts of the world when it comes to the testing and adoption of drones for last mile deliveries. This is not due to a lack of interest or research and development efforts from some of the largest drone manufacturers. In fact, companies such as Amazon, Google, and UPS have invested incredible amounts of money into how they can deploy drones to make deliveries. These companies have also put pressure on Washington DC to change current drone regulations that have curbed the advancement of the technology. The current FAA regulations have made drone deliveries basically an impossibility due to tight restrictions on lines of site, operator controls, open airspace, and flight processes.
However, late last year, President Trump announced plans to ease drone regulations and increase test flights to make the use of drones a possibility for home deliveries. And this month, the FAA announced at least 10 approved pilot programs for drone initiatives, some of which will likely include home delivery, could begin by May. Even with an easing of the regulations, and FAA-approved pilot programs, there are still a number of challenges facing drone operations in the United States.
Safety and Security Concerns
One of the main concerns from the FAA and the general public are safety concerns. While the drone manufacturers prefer unmanned flights that can travel a couple of miles, there are clearly concerns about these types of deliveries. As drones become smarter and can navigate better, the general public seems to be less worried about potential in-air disasters; however, the concerns are still there. The big question is what type of contingency plans are in place if something goes wrong. Amazon revealed plans for a delivery drone that will break apart in case of an in-air emergency. The key part of this is that the parts will fall to “safe spots” such as trees or ponds in case of a mid-air malfunction. However, what constitutes a mid-air emergency? If drones are attempting to make deliveries to crowded spaces, it could easily be too late for the drone to self-destruct before crashing into a building or person.
Another security concern revolves around privacy. The drones need to be embedded with cameras and sensors to navigate. A lot of people have concerns over what these cameras may capture when flying through crowded spaces or over houses. There have been plenty of issues with recreational drones flying near people’s houses, causing disputes over privacy rights. This is an issue that drones operators will have to sort out and ensure that privacy issues do not pop up.
What are the practical uses of drone deliveries? We have written about an assortment of use cases for drone deliveries here, but last mile delivery generally is not one of those. There have been three key delivery types that make the most sense. First is the delivery of medical supplies to remote areas. These supplies include blood, medical equipment, and medicine; the key is to get the supplies there quickly without having to traverse rough terrain. A second practical application is within the yard or warehouse for inventory management applications. PINC Solutions, for example, provides drones for use in yards and warehouses that make use of RFID for real time location of yard assets and inventory management processes within the warehouse. The third aspect we have seen is the use of drones to ferry supplies at ports. Maersk has run numerous tests to stock ships at sea without having to use smaller ships to bring the supplies. The goal is to reduce the cost of restocking ships by using the drones.
But what about last mile deliveries, which is where most of the public attention has come from? Well, while there is a lot of interest, it is the least practical side of drone deliveries. One of the problems is how to safely develop landing areas for drones. In a busy city or even a densely-populated town, there are so many obstacles that will restrict drones delivering a package to your front door, such as trees, power lines, cars, people, and potentially other drones. This is especially true with apartment complexes. Where will the drone land? Even with dedicated roof landing zones, this still requires consumers to go to the roof to get their package. Will consumers need to build landing pads in their backyards, with clearly defined boundaries for a safe landing? This just seems implausible.
There is a way around this problem, and that is by following the lead of Mercedes-Benz. Rather than making actual drone deliveries to your door step, the company has used drones to set up the last mile. The drones dropped the parcels off at four fixed points within the city, dropping the items off on the roofs of specially designed Mercedes-Benz Vito vans. The flights covered up to 11 miles, and the vans then covered the final mile for home delivery.
Now, in the mid-west and other sprawling areas, the feasibility is there. UPS has tested drones where a driver loads up a drone for home delivery while he or she makes another delivery. The drone flies to the house, drops the package, and then returns to the docking station on the roof of the truck. This way, the driver can make two deliveries in the same time as it would normally take to make one.
Scalability is always a concern when it comes to launching new technologies. While there is public interest in the possibility of drone deliveries, are businesses on board? According to my latest omni-channel fulfillment survey, the answer is no. According to survey respondents, 0 percent of companies are currently using drones for home delivery, and only 16 percent indicated they had plans to use drones in the future. Granted, Amazon, Google, and UPS would be taking drone deliveries into their own hands, but for scalability purposes, retailers would need to be on board as well.
Another issue for scalability comes down to the Teamsters. While UPS has tested drone deliveries, and has invested money in drone-equipped trucks, the Teamsters Union, which represents about 260,000 UPS employees has other thoughts. The Teamsters and UPS are in the beginning stages of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. First up on the Teamsters list of demands: no drones to make deliveries. This is most likely due to the fear of drivers losing their jobs. But, if the new agreement includes this provision, that is a serious blow to the future of drone deliveries.
Final Thought on Drone Deliveries
The use of drones for last mile deliveries will continue to pique the interest of the general public. The thought of ordering an item online and having it dropped at your doorstep just minutes later sounds amazing. However, the technological and regulatory hurdles involved make this more of a dream scenario than a reality. However, as the FAA loosens its regulations and begins to pilot more programs, drone deliveries certainly are getting closer. The big questions will always revolve around safety and security, practicality, and scalability. How the drone manufacturers and operators handle these concerns over the coming weeks, months, and years will play a pivotal role in determining when and if drones are dropping packages at our doors.