The logistics of the last mile have always been challenging for retailers. But, with multiple trials underway, is the future personalised delivery by autonomous drones? And will this technology be able to meet regulatory and safety regulations?
The idea that a drone could deliver a package to your door has been actively developing for several years. All the large online retailers have trials in progress to prove the technology can be implemented safely.
Drone and autonomous vehicle delivery have been possible in highly controlled environments such as university campuses or to deliver medicines to report locations. Evolving these technologies to the point where any package can be delivered to anyone’s door is in development.
Already successful tests have been taking place. For example, grocery delivery to local residents across Wellingborough, Higham Ferrers, and Rushden use autonomous grocery delivery vehicles with a partnership between Starship Technologies, North Northamptonshire Council and the Co-op.
The move follows a successful scheme running in Northampton since November 2020. The partnership will see up to 45,000 residents across 33,000 households in Wellingborough, Rushden, and Higham Ferrers able to access on-demand grocery delivery from four Co-op stores in Olympic Way, Farm Road off Northern Way, Redhill Farm, Grangeway and Higham Ferrers.
Since launching commercial deliveries in 2018, Starship’s robots have travelled more than four million miles and safely completed more than 3.5 million deliveries. Around the world, their robots make 140,000 road crossings daily, equivalent to three road crossings every second.
Councillor Graham Lawman, North Northamptonshire Council’s Executive Member for Highways, Travel and Assets, said: “The council is committed to the environment and this new service is another innovation that we are supporting to help to provide a clean and green alternative to the private car for day-to-day convenience shopping, helping to reduce emissions. They will be really useful for those without a car or unable to get out for those urgent items.”
Andrew Curtis, UK Operations Manager at Starship Technologies, said: “We have had very positive feedback from local communities in Northampton since starting operations there in November 2020, and today is an exciting day for Starship as we offer the benefits of autonomous grocery delivery to 33,000 more households across Northamptonshire. Our robots offer an environmentally friendly and convenient way of helping people with their ‘top up’ shopping and we’re confident the service will be similarly well received in North Northants.”
The robots are lightweight and travel at the speed of a pedestrian (no faster than four mph). They use a combination of sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to travel on pavements and navigate around any obstacles. At the same time, computer vision-based navigation helps them map their environment to the nearest inch.
In the UK, Boots has already completed its first delivery by drone. The test flight was from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight. The drone – developed by medical start-up Apian – picked up the medicines from the British Army’s Baker Barracks on Thorney Island near Portsmouth and landed the drone at St. Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight.
Rich Corbridge, Chief Information Officer at Boots, said: “Drones have massive potential in the delivery of medicines, and it is incredibly exciting to be the first community pharmacy in the UK to transport them in this way. An island like the Isle of Wight seemed like a suitable place to start a trial of drones, and their value to the delivery of medicines to more remote areas is apparent.
Rules and regulations
Having fleets of drones flying through the sky clearly has safety issues that must be addressed. As the general public has had access to small drones that have been flown near or even over airports, it illustrates that these issues must be addressed for drones to operate on a commercial level.
Speaking to Silicon UK, Dr Shaun Passley, Founder and CEO of ZenaDrone – a state-of-the-art farming technology solution that helps mitigate issues with crops as they arise, preventing wastage and ensuring they go directly from seed to sale, explains: “There are many challenges that the drone delivery sector is facing. One is on regulation where the FAA sets the guidelines on the acceptable ways to fly a drone and compliance with operator permits and licenses to fly a drone. Another challenge is the threat of hijacking data captured by drones.”
Passley concluded: “Unlike military drones that have an extra layer of hardware to validate communication levels, commercial drones only rely on existing encryptions on communication which could easily be hijacked. And safety concerns also plagued the drone industry.”
If drones are to deliver to any address, having safe places for the drone to land must be clarified. As E-commerce gained prominence, many consumers placed parcel boxes near their homes to accept deliveries when they were unavailable.
This approach has been adopted by one of the prominent logistics companies, as Joe Farrell, VP of International Operations at PFS, outlines: “Regulations are key when it comes to drone delivery and safety. DHLs have offered the solution of having drones deliver to a secure “smart locker” and once the delivery is made the recipient is sent a special code to unlock it. This can be a viable solution, but the retailer also needs to keep in mind the level of convenience to the customer.”
The large online retailer has been exploring drone technology since its inception. Amazon has advanced research and development, with their latest drone being tested as you read this. As Amazon state, what was fantasy is now being built: “The promise of drone delivery has often felt like science fiction, and we’ve been working for almost a decade to make it a reality. We’ve built fully electric drones that can deliver packages under five pounds to customers in less than an hour, from click to delivery. Earlier this year, we announced that customers who live in Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas, will be among the first to receive Prime Air deliveries later this year.”
The company explains: “We’re now introducing our next-generation delivery drone: the MK30. Due to coming into service in 2024, this drone will be lighter and smaller than the MK27-2, the drone that will be making deliveries in Lockeford and College Station. In addition, the MK30’s increased range, expanded temperature tolerance, safety-critical features, and new capability to fly in light rain will enable customers to choose drone delivery more often.”
Wing is another company rapidly expanding the drone services they offer.” The European Union has recently made important progress in developing regulations for uncrewed aviation, providing a framework that seems poised to enable safe and scalable drone delivery,” the company states. “Wing is encouraged by what’s taking shape, and now we’re excited to explore how we can leverage these new regulations to bring this service to more European communities.”
“In the coming weeks, Wing will launch a small-scale demonstration of a drone delivery operation in Lusk, an Irish community in Fingal, County Dublin, 20 kms north of the city of Dublin. These operations will build off of our successful partnerships and approvals that were granted in Finland. The approvals can be recognised across EASA Member States and have been recognised by the Irish Aviation Authority.”
The company is already showing how consumers can access drone deliveries with their DoorDash service in Australia. Selected customers in Logan will be able to order a range of convenience and grocery items, pantry staples, snacks, and household essentials directly through the DoorDash App and deliver them by a Wing drone, typically in 15 minutes or less. Initially available to a small number of households, Wing will gradually expand availability in the coming months.
Also, the company has already set up a drone delivery hub on the rooftop of a local shopping centre. In Dallas, Wing evolved this concept into their first “store-to-door” operation. And will expand the service to Australia’s Gold Coast.
The creation of the UK’s ‘drone superhighway’ called Project Skyway illustrates the speed at which drone technology is being adopted. The plan is to have a dedicated fly space for drones between Cambridge and Rugby. Costing an estimated £273m
Richard Parker, Altitude Angel, CEO and founder, said: “The capability we are deploying and proving through Skyway can revolutionise the way we transport goods and travel in a way not experienced since the advent of the railways in the 18th century: the last ‘transport revolution’. The ARROW technology we are building here is transformative – it is the basis of Skyway and the only scalable, viable mechanism to start integration of drones into our everyday lives, safely and fairly, ensuring that airspace can remain open, and crewed and uncrewed aviation from any party can safely coexist.”
The pace at which drone technology for deliveries is developing illustrates a drive from B2C companies. In some scenarios, the technology is transformative and lifesaving. Whether mass consumers want what could be many drones flying around their neighbourhoods has yet to be thoroughly tested. Current technology is noisy, which could be an issue, but drone developers are addressing this right now.
And where packages would be delivered has yet to be fully explained by the drone developers or their customers. Security is front of mind here. Very few people have large open spaces for a drone to land. Most consumers have lockable boxes to receive high-value deliveries. How a fleet of drones would manage has yet to be fully explained. Perhaps we all need to equip our homes with mini helipads in the future.
There are many issues to overcome, none more so than safety, but the current trials and actual commercial operations show an appetite for drone and robot delivery services. As part of the logistical mix, the major retailers must pay close attention to this space. So watch the sky for your next Amazon delivery.
Danny Hudson, FarEye Director of UK and Europe.
Danny has over 20 years of experience in the software and technology space, helping companies invest and realise the value of their technology investments to help drive business performance and strategy across the supply chain. Working with many global brands, he has a wealth of knowledge across Retail, Pharma and Healthcare, 3PL and Manufacturing, specialising in transport, logistics, warehousing and planning solutions. At FarEye, he is responsible for driving growth in the European region.
The drone delivery sector is accelerating. But should E-commerce businesses be paying close attention to this technology?
“Jeff Bezos shocked the world when he introduced drone delivery back in 2013, and it has been “the next big thing” in delivery management for almost nine years now. The market is continuing to rapidly evolve but time will tell whether drones are the next big thing. Customers are keen to explore and expand on their delivery options, but at least for now, drones are futuristic rather than a reality for E-commerce businesses.”
What are the current challenges facing the drone delivery sector?
“Several challenges are delaying the drone delivery sector. The physical element needs thinking through (no one wants a box landing on their heads!), and the technology has a few more steps to take to evolve further, similar to driverless cars. By achieving both, you will gain consumers’ trust by providing the validity of these services.
“In addition, drone delivery requires a substantial capital investment to ensure a successful programme – from costly regulation compliance to drone maintenance. Smaller enterprises will find it difficult to establish a delivery programme and achieve scale, so they will need to stick with what they can control for now.”
Safety is clearly a significant concern with drone delivery. How are the developers of this technology addressing these issues? What regulations must be complied with?
“Urban areas dense with consumers may seem like the perfect place for drone delivery to take off, but that isn’t the case. Drone deliveries in dense cities like London or Tokyo may prove to be challenging as safe, consumer-owned landing zones such as a backyard are limited. Coupled with tall buildings complicating low-level flight with government-regulated airspace around cities and large airports, urban drone delivery becomes a bit more difficult. For example, Washington, DC, one of America’s densest urban areas, has some of the strictest airspaces in the world. Until these navigational and regulatory hurdles are overcome, drone delivery in consumer-rich environments may be off the table.
“Delivering small, lightweight items via drones is rather feasible. However, delivering large or heavy items like a new flat-screen TV or leather couch is not. Aerodynamics aside, in the US, drone operators are limited by the FAA to carrying cargo weighing under 55 pounds. This limits the use of drones and inhibits them from stacking orders and making multiple deliveries in one run. On the other hand, TwinswHeel of France created a drone capable of carrying up to 300kg, but it can’t yet deliver a sofa to a consumer’s home.
“Since drones are new and driverless, they are getting extra attention. However, as with all modes of delivery transport, drones pose safety risks to those around them. For example, the Swiss Post suspended drone delivery service after a drone crashed near a group of schoolchildren following a short circuit interrupting the drone’s GPS power supply. Threats to drone safety range from mechanical malfunctions and adverse weather conditions to birds or perhaps an unsuspecting dog – they’ve always had a rocky relationship with the mailman! As with any new technology, safety and public trust take time to prove.”
Are consumers interested in this kind of delivery technology?
“Everyone is looking forward to how, what, why and when drones will deliver items. I have certainly spoken with many consumers who believe this technology could be of benefit and add value but are waiting for the capabilities to develop further.
“However, with the upcoming recession, drones may not be the answer just yet, as it is a costly alternative that many consumers cannot afford.
“Consumers have increasingly become interested in a greener alternative to a diesel truck, and drones provide an answer. Drones can zip over traffic, don’t require drivers and emit zero fossil fuels. And on top of that, drones can deliver parcels 20 times faster than ground-based transportation, so this type of technology would be a great sustainable and speedy alternative to offer in the future.”
Does this technology have the potential to revolutionise logistics?
“Any solution to the movement of goods that mitigate pollution, driver resource shortages and human limitations must be considered. However, since we are not starting with a blank piece of paper as businesses already have stores, factories, warehouses and processes, it limits businesses’ options. It stops the delight that comes with drones which can deliver from anywhere to anywhere as there are specific locations it needs to go to on its journey. The steps necessary to get drones to a revolutionary stage would require optimising the infrastructure already in place.
“In addition, drone delivery operating costs are not cheap. Amazon estimates it costs roughly $63 per package to be delivered by drone. For a lean, logistics-focused company this cost is huge, indicating drone delivery may be best suited for affluent consumers and high-value or time-critical products. Zipline, a drone delivery company, was able to deliver lifesaving medical supplies to rural areas of Rwanda and Ghana, reducing delivery times from 4 hours to 20 minutes. Deliveries like these justify the cost.”
Is drone technology an explicit component of the post-pandemic omnichannel?
“The drone technology wasn’t a component of the post-pandemic omnichannel, but I would say it has accelerated that opportunity. During the pandemic, we were locked in one location, so it definitely jumpstarted conversations about how we could get around this at the time.
“Consumers see remarkably little of the planning, and research logistics firms do behind the scenes. Drone delivery is happening, just not in the way consumers think. For consumer retail companies seeking efficiencies in the last mile, their budget may be better spent elsewhere in 2022.
“It is reasonable to predict drone technology will reach widespread consumer scale in 3-5 years as initial technology investments are refined, government regulations are rewritten, and operation costs come down.
“Drones will have the greatest impact in geographies where it’s difficult for delivery trucks to navigate and decipher specific addresses – a common environment found across many parts of Asia. Look up and look East in 2025.“