This is Part One in a three part analysis of the evolving transport industry. This first part is a broad-brush-stroke analysis of the logistics of delivery-by-drone, and whether or not there is considered to be potential for this fledgling idea to become commercially viable in any sort of sense. The second part in this series will discuss driver-less cars, when it will be legal to text-and-drive at the same time (oh, heaven)! And the third part of this series will discuss driver-less trucks, and the advancements being made in this area.
Delivery-by-Drone certainly has the attention of some major and as well as some minor businesses. In America, Amazon is rumored to be running at full pace towards a drone-friendly delivery paradigm. In Australia some small players are considering textbook and fast food delivery as viable markets for their drones to enter into according to some press.
There are a number of barriers to entry for delivery-by-drone, least of which are the buildings and trees that the drones will need to navigate around or within. This writer can’t wait for the day that – instead of wandering down to ground level and walking to a café, that I can instead flick an SMS to a delivery-drone-food-outlet and have some tasty morsel cannily delivered through the maze of my building’s vestibule, up the lift and around the corner, past the security door – wait, this is really never going to happen. OK, well, what about a burger to my home? Let’s explore further…
The most challenging barriers to entry for deliver-by-drone of small packages are considered to be as follows:
- range of the drone
- air space licensing
- fail safes in case of engine failure
- evidence of delivery
To be most cost effective, a drone will need to be able to travel a reasonable distance with a potentially heavy payload on board. In order to achieve range, motors will need to be efficient, and on-board fuel will need to be as light as possible (or as energy dense as possible).
To combat limited range, distribution centers could be built at higher density intervals. This option by itself would likely put pressure on zoning restrictions in some areas. The cost of additional real estate would also need to be factored into any cost benefit analysis as soon as additional satellite distribution centers are required.
Considering that one of the challenges of owning delivery drones will be storing the drone itself when it is not in use, it is anticipated that additional warehouses will need to be built to house drones that are being serviced as well as to store drones that are not on active duty. For highest efficiencies, drones would be running twenty-four hours a day, but would still need to land and fuel, take on cargo and undergo maintenance. If the fuel is electricity which is stored in a battery, the best option would be to swap out the spent batteries and leave them to charge. All of these requirements will demand expensive and possibly additional real-estate space.
Assuming delivery-by-drone takes off as an industry, air space will become a concern as fast moving virtual missiles take to the sky with competing trajectories. And this means lobbying for and gaining permission from regulators as to what can fly where, how high, how often and, importantly, with no human intervention.
Potentially there will be a future need to separate out some vertical air space to one carrier and some vertical air space to another carrier to assist with reducing the likelihood of collision – but even then drones of the same carrier would need to be aware should another drone or a bird come within its minimum separation space. And considering the quantity of air space licensing and regulation required, it may fall to local governments to manage drone air space zoning in addition to the current centralized national approach utilized for conventional aircraft. This in turn would lead to programming complexities as drones attempt to pass into neighboring local zones and suddenly need to change height as it passes into a neighboring air space. As if local regulators will bother to check with their neighbors as to what air space ACME was given across the border – check Australia’s random rail gauges as a current example of the value of moderately decentralized regulation when it comes to standards adoption.
It is also considered highly likely that a requirement for new taxes and legislation will need to be organized to pay for the people required to regulate the new and increasing air-space controls. At least we know what jobs a percentage of any of the displaced couriers will be able to apply for once their current delivery jobs are eroded away by lightweight flying robots.
Keep in mind that these virtual missiles will be controlled by computer. This means that drones will have the potential to be hacked and manipulated by – shall we say – unauthorized personnel. A drone controlled by a business competitor would likely ground a drone or send it to the wrong destination, or abandon payload, limiting damage to financial and reputation to the drone’s owner organization. Meaner people might use their newly acquired drone to deliver a different kind of payload than that which was ordered, and then send that drone to a more populated area, rather than to a single residence, which has the potential to cause damage to reputation to the drone’s owning organization, in addition to whatever damage the payload has at its intended destination.
Or maybe it will be all roses, no need to be concerned.
Drones themselves need to be able to hold their package and maneuver with it, including maintaining a safe trajectory during sudden changes in air pressure (think gusts of wind – breezes happen).
In general, a drone will need to be physically larger than its package in order to safely carry its cargo. It also follows that each drone would need a strong motor in order to carry the overall weight of the drone plus the weight of its payload. Or, a drone can have many small motors that provide enough thrust and range when used together, plus sufficient redundancy should one or two fail (that is, if one or two motors fail during flight, the drone can either continue to safely fly or can at least land safely).
For stability as well as redundancy, it is considered most likely that a drone with multiple motors would be safer and more resilient than a drone with fewer motors. A drone with four or fewer motors would likely fall to the ground should one motor fail due to the associated strains placed on the remaining motors. Drones of six or more motors would require more power to cater to the demands of the motors, and may have a reduced range due to size-to-weight ratios forced by safety requirements. A drone with more motors would be more resilient to wind gusts and bird strike and other potential mishaps which would at least offset some of these associated downsides.
Where’s My Package?
The final major challenge will be providing evidence that a delivery was even made. At this point in time we might all be familiar with providing a signature to the person who has made the delivery – even if it the signature is now made on an electronic tablet of some type instead of on a sheet of paper with pen in hand. To overcome this evidence obstacle, drones will need to be fitted with a video recording device and be able to receive some form of signature from the person collecting the package. But this still begs the question – will people accept video surveillance snippets taken of them in order to wolf down their burger? And, if they don’t, will a delivery continue to its conclusion, and just how do you sign for something when the pad you’re signing on keeps hovering erratically under the weight of your pen-hand? If I ate my burger and I didn’t sign for it (and obscured my face) – or somebody else signed for it, did the delivery occur?
At first glance, it appears that there are too many challenges to overcome in order to make delivery-by-drone a commercially viable option for warehouse supply chains, even in the medium to long term. It is fun to dream though.