Drone delivery for eCommerce: Will it ever really take off?
There’s something adherently cool about having your online orders delivered by a computerized, flying machine. In addition to cutting out the need for any awkward small talk with the delivery man, there are a number of ways that drone deliveries in eCommerce could enhance the quality of your online buying experience. Drone deliveries could be applied to food, medications, and commercial products for delivery within an hour that an order is placed. As consumers are demanding instant gratification after placing online orders, we understand why the prospect of a ‘within-the-hour’ delivery service is causing some excitement within the eCommerce industry. The problem with drone delivery is that, in their current state, drones can’t deliver parcels very well. Big red flag.
We’ve heard a whole lot of noise about the use of drones in eCommerce in the news recently, but we can’t help but squint our eyes at the misguided optimism of those who believe that drone deliveries are the future of eCommerce. That’s not to say that we’re not excited about how technology can improve and enhance the eCommerce industry (we really are), but we’re skeptical about how an automated machine flying through the sky can get past the complexities of eCommerce logistics. Here’s why:
The biggest obstacle that drone deliveries face is government regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has outlined its first set of rules for the use of commercial drones. Whilst some industries are set to benefit from such regulations, the drone delivery service is faced with some unyielding obstacles:
– Drones must be kept within the line of sight of its operator
– Drones can only be flown during daylight and twilight hours
– Flights are restricted to 400 feet above ground and are restricted from flying above unprotected civilians on the ground
The FAA has confirmed that it is working on additional rules that will broaden the use of drones in a commercial capacity, but we’re a long way from retailers having the legal authorization to fly their drones freely.
The technology of drone delivery has been proven to work, but do the economics make sense? We’ve seen that drones are capable of delivering a parcel from A to B, but their ability to make deliveries at the same capacity of the humble delivery truck is yet to be seen.
The economic efficiency of a delivery is most commonly determined by two factors:
Route density – The number of drop-offs that can be made per delivery route
Drop size – The number of parcels per drop-off
The higher the number of deliveries per hour and per mile, the lower the cost per parcel will be. Similarly, the higher the number of parcels per drop-off, the lower the cost per parcel.
In their current state, drones perform poorly on both these factors. In the trials we’ve seen so far, the drone is only capable of delivering one package and must fly back to its home base to pick up the next one.
If drone delivery was to really take off, the delivery capabilities must severely exceed what has been tested in existing prototypes. To be considered a financially efficient delivery method, drones need to be able to carry everything that land vehicles can for the same amount of distance. That means bigger drones and even bigger dollar signs. To put it into perspective, the drones used by the US military cost between $2,500-3500USD per flight hour. Yikes.
Whilst the big boys of the eCommerce industry may be able to front these costs, we can’t help but think the delivery trucks will be a little more friendly on the wallet.
So far we’ve seen e-retailers like Amazon trial their Prime Air drone delivery service through the vast open land of Cambridge, England. Credit where it’s due – the parcel was delivered directly to the front yard of the customer – but what happens when the customer doesn’t have a front yard?
What happens when drones have to deliver to people living in apartment blocks in urban cities?
Will drones be capable of navigating doors, elevators, and staircases to deliver to your doorstep?
Will they be able to sign-in to an apartment building or interact with doormen?
There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to overcoming the challenges of drone delivery in urban areas. Whilst the technology guru’s of the world will undoubtedly find a way to integrate such human abilities into the design of future models, the existing models are not equipped to overcome these challenges.
Theft & Damage
From opportunistic criminals to a highly sophisticated hacker, unmanned drones are susceptible to theft. You can bet that there will be a surge of people ready to take on the challenge of intercepting a drone whilst it’s out on delivery, and there’s very little that an operator back in the warehouse will be able to do to prevent it.
The risk of damage to the drone and/or parcel also puts limitations on the drone delivery service. Remember the story of the US Airways Flight 1549? In an unforeseen disaster, a flock of birds flew directly into the airplane’s flight path, immediately killing both engines. That’s two engines. On a commercial jet. Killed by birds. Whilst the stakes are much lower in terms of cargo, the risk of in-flight damage to drones and the products they’re carrying is a concern for the drone delivery service.
So, to answer our own question – will drone deliveries ever really take off? – we’re not holding out on receiving our online orders by drone anytime soon. The drone delivery service has a long way to go before it can establish itself as a viable delivery option. Whilst the technology to enable a drone to deliver a parcel exists, the infrastructure to support the delivery does not. Stakeholders must design and implement a system that can overcome these obstacles to provide a delivery service that is seamless from start to finish. It’s a long road ahead for eCommerce deliveries (pun intended).