Delivery Drones: Coming Soon to a Warehouse Near You

You click the “Submit Order” button on your favorite e-tailer’s website and wait. Thirty minutes later, a delivery drone deposits the parcel on your front porch.

If major players like Amazon, Google and Walmart have their way, this scenario will soon play out all across the country. In fact, what began as little more than a pipe dream a few years ago continues to inch closer to certainty as regulatory hurdles are overcome.

It’s easy to see the appeal of such a Jetsonion delivery system. But is it cost-effective? And how long will it really be before delivery drones become mainstream?

Driven by Two Factors

The economics of delivery is generally driven by two factors:  Route density and drop size. Route density is the number of drops that can be made on any given delivery route. Drop size is the number of parcels per stop on any given route.

If you make lots of deliveries over a short distance or period of time, or if you deliver lots of parcels to the same location, your cost per parcel will be low.

Right now, drones perform poorly in both of these areas. Current  prototypes usually carry only one package, with a maximum weight of five pounds. After the drone makes its delivery, it must fly all the way back to its home base to recharge its batteries and pick up the next package.

Compare that to the average UPS truck, which makes about of 120 stops a day to deliver hundreds (or even thousands) of packages. Drones launching from faraway warehouses currently can’t compete with this kind of efficiency.

Mobile Warehouses

Which is why Amazon and, presumably, other retailers are investigating plans to use delivery trucks as “mobile warehouses” from which a swarm of drones can be launched.

Releasing these drones in rapid succession would allow a single truck to deliver dozens of parcels simultaneously. Such a system could easily outpace the production of a single truck driver who delivers to one house at a time.

Amazon is even taking this concept a step further:  Imagine, self-driving trucks, roaming around neighborhoods. The trucks would be  stocked with items which Amazon’s systems had predetermined to be wanted or needed in specific areas.

Even More Fantastic

But wait…there’s more.

Both Walmart and Amazon have applied for patents on “gas-filled carrier aircrafts” that would serve as airborne bases for their delivery drones. That’s right….blimps. These blimps would allow the drones access to homes they couldn’t reach if they flew from a fixed location.

Flying at altitudes up to 1,000 feet, the airships would communicate with a remote scheduling system, telling the drones when to fetch packages from inside the blimp and head to their destinations.

Best Feature

But perhaps the drones’ best feature is also its most obvious one: They can go where there are no roads. And considering that about one billion people on the planet do not have access to all-season roads, that’s significant.

Take Rwanda, for instance, where drone deliveries have already taken flight. That country relies increasingly on drone technology in order to receive critical supplies.

Far removed from the American PR circus surrounding retail and e-tail deliveries, U.S.-based tech company Zipline uses its drones as “sky ambulances.” Their drones deliver lifesaving blood supplies by parachute to remote hospitals and clinics located hours outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

By focusing on critical medical supplies, Zipline has successfully convinced regulators to tolerate the potential safety risks of delivery drones. As it turns out, that’s a lot easier to do when the deliveries are saving lives and not just bringing the latest cosmetic or a new pair of shoes.

Smaller Players, Too

But don’t discount minor players in the drone delivery game, either. For instance, a small startup company called Flirtey recently partnered with convenience store chain 7-Eleven.

Together, they’re experimenting with using drones to deliver over-the-counter medications (and perhaps, Slurpees and chili dogs). Take a look:

 


Sources:

Flexport

The New York Times

Engadget

Wired.com