Drone delivery – practical advice for enterprises
Is drone delivery a pragmatic option? And for which industries?
Sheban Naim: In my opinion, the correct answer to this is "it depends". For example, if a person wants to transport small items, a few times a week, in a relatively remote part of a country. Then yes - it can be practical and cost effective to do so with the current drone technologies. However, try and do the same thing in the middle of a bustling city - then the answer becomes significantly more complex. This is why a lot of drone companies (Zipline for example) started out with delivering high-value, low volume items in rural environments before tackling more complicated scenarios.
Why is it not here or adopted already?
SN: As with all emerging technologies, there have been a lot of misconceptions about the capabilities and the practicality of drone-based delivery systems in the past. In an urban environment for a drone delivery system to succeed - it needs to be safe, reliable and it may have to compete or co-exist with regular delivery systems which have been in development for decades. This involves solving problems like coordinating drone traffic with air traffic, battery limitations, pedestrian safety, advanced collision avoidance, addressing the "last mile challenge" and finally, you have to make the whole thing cost-effective and commercially viable. When you add all these complexities together, the difficult adoption cycles become apparent.
What needs to change for it to be more mainstream?
SN: There are still numerous technological and regulatory hurdles that have to be addressed before these types of delivery systems become mainstream. For the sake of simplicity, I'll address the ones I consider the Big 3.
Battery technology being at the forefront - modern Lithium Polymer batteries (used in most commercial drones) have limited energy density and require a long time to charge. This translates to limited flight time and range for drones. The second big hurdle is the effective integration of drone traffic with commercial airspace - no country will allow urban deliveries unless it can guarantee the safety of civilian air traffic. One way to solve this challenge is to create air corridors exclusively for drone air traffic.
The last hurdle is cost - while drones have been around for a while now, delivery drone infrastructure and development is still a fairly expensive proposition, allowing for limited players in the market. When you take into consideration the competition - trucks, bike messengers and cars, sometimes the most economical way to deliver goods in an urban setting is still the traditional way.
What kind of sectors would be it be most useful for - and why?
SN: In the short term, most industries where the payload requirements aren't too heavy and where time is of the essence may see an immediate benefit from drone delivery solutions. Emergency Response and Medical Deliveries are common examples, but the applications are endless. Take off-shore oil rigs as an example - sometimes an urgent part requirement means sending out a helicopter specifically for the task, as the cost of downtime can be very high. A point to point drone delivery system would be perfect to solve such issues. In a more immediate and relevant context, drones are being used to transport medication, face masks and COVID19 samples in countries like Chile, connecting small towns across hilly terrain.
In the long term, I believe we will eventually see fleets of unmanned cargo aircraft, both big and small being able to operate 24/7 in civilian and military airspace.
What do businesses need to consider to implement a drone strategy for their business?
SN: An effective strategy would involve narrowing down the focus and scope of delivery. Trying to do a one-size-fits all solution can be an exercise in frustration that's best left to the likes of Google and Amazon.
From a technical perspective, it's also important to select the correct type of drone platform for your delivery needs. Multi-rotors are great for precise, point to point deliveries as they can take off and land vertically with minimal infrastructure. On the flip side, they have limited range and the average multirotor cannot carry very heavy payloads over long distances due to restricted flight times and battery limitations. Alternatively, fixed-wing aircraft style drones have great range and payload carrying capability but require infrastructure to land and take off from. Hybrid drones represent the best of both worlds (which is one reason Google and Amazon have picked these platforms) but can be complicated to design and operate.
Finally, from a regulatory angle- a business needs to consider current and future legal hurdles that could affect both the short term as well as the long-term growth and viability of the drone delivery solution. A lot of firms worldwide have announced plans and then walked into a wall of regulatory problems later on. A good strategy would always involve the inclusion of regulatory stakeholders for it to be scalable and effective.