Drones have been wavering around the technological periphery for some time now. Launched into the public’s conscious in 2013, when Amazon first flirted with the idea of drone delivery, progress appears to be slow.
With news now emerging that the Swiss postal system are set to test a drone delivery service over the summer, hype and possibility are growing ever closer to reality.
But can drone delivery really work, and do we even want it?
A Viable Service?
Rumours have circulated over the viability of drone delivery since Amazon lifted the idea into the wider technological concious in 2013. At the time, many scoffed at the concept, dismissing it as unworkable and just downright ridiculous. Amazon’s agenda was also questioned when they handily timed their outlandish announcement for Cyber Monday- a puppet used purely for some free PR.
Alas, Amazon persevered, and now have taken a small step towards making drone delivery a reality. Hidden within Amazon’s US patent application are the first real details as to how the system might work. Now the US Patent and Trademark Office have approved the ideas, details on the application submitted in September 2014 have been shared.
Each of Amazon’s drones will be kitted out with multiple sensors, sonar, radar, infrared and cameras. The drones will use its many navigational applications to plan a route to the desired location. Using local weather information and constantly monitoring its path to avoid animals and other humans, the unmanned vehicle will be able to update its route as it goes. This will also account for the potential for an ever changing destination. Each drone will be able to locate you via your smartphone. So, a customer could choose to have their parcel delivered directly to them, (and would be free to move around as they pleased) or send the parcel to a desired location- be it your car, house or even a boat in the middle of a lake.
Currently only planning to deliver parcels up to the weight of 5 pounds (2.2Kg), Amazon are ploughing ahead with their plans to revolutionise online deliveries. Whilst the methods agreed in their patent are unlikely to convert into any finalised system, Amazon are at least showing that drone delivery isn’t just pie-in-the-sky. And they aren’t the only ones.
As mentioned in the intro, a number of other companies are experimenting with alternative delivery methods. DHL have long dabbled with the idea, and recently they ran a test on the tiny North Sea Island of Juist. Taking aspects of the tracking system proposed by Amazon, DHL are also currently testing a car-delivery system. Taking place in Munich throughout May, DHL couriers will be provided with a one off code to open the boot of your Audi car. Once the parcel is safely in your boot, the door is closed and the courier is no longer able to access any part of your car.
Image- Audi via BBC
In February, Taobao began running a one hour ginger tea delivering service for 450 customer in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. This summer, the Swiss Postal Service will test the use of drones for packages weighing to 1kg. The Matternet-developed drones can travel 12 miles on one charge, delivering documents, parts and medicine to the surrounding area.
At the time, Matternet outlined their justification for the project:
“The primary aim of this pilot project is a Proof of Concept to clarify the legal framework, consider local conditions and explore the technical and business capabilities of the drones.”
Complied on top of one another, the issues Matternet and co. are looking to overcome are daunting. Firstly, any drone delivery service would have to overcome no shortage of legal difficulties. Amazon have so far been unable to test their drones in US airspace, reducing them to testing in Canada. Unable to gain the necessary permits from the Federal Aviation Administration in the US, Amazon have looked elsewhere for more liberal airspace laws. Obviously, any green-light for drone delivery would be subject to an agreed flight path and height. Issues over avoiding private airspace, landing on private land and avoiding other feathered aviation-enabled creatures are aplenty. Any real-world system would have a great number of procedural hurdles to overcome.
Unravelling the logistical nightmare that is drone delivery gets even more complicated when you throw safety concerns into the mix. How does a drone account for a child or dog careering into its motorised blades? Could we soon be showered under a relentless rain of cheap electronics and books, or are the packages 100% secure? Are the navigation systems accurate enough to avoid every street-level power line, or will entire cities be plunged into the middle ages due to a drone with a bad sense of direction?
Any incorporation of drones into a delivery service would be done so to improve efficiency. So how efficient can the drones be? Amazon have said in the past that their drones don’t work in heavy rain, sleet or snow- ruling its use out in Britain for all but a fortnight of the annual calendar. And what’s to stop the more rebellious amongst us launching a brick (or firing a bullet for our American cousins) at a passing drone, in the hope we can pick-up a new iPad with a drone thrown in?
A plethora of largely unanswered questions then. Ones which might be easier to overcome should the system be tweaked just ever so slightly. Some suggestions have been made that a drone/traditional van partnership might be a happy compromise. A delivery driver could continue his daily routine, bearing gifts to community, cheerily whistling as he plods on by. Whenever the postal worker halts his van, a collection of drones are released from the back. Dispersing to their allocated destinations, a succession of parcels are delivered in the time it previously took to do just one. Efficiency would be increased by less travelling time for the drones, which in turn would go some way to extinguishing a number of the safety issues from earlier.
Indeed, innovators into the sector could do worse than tailoring the service to those who need it the most. Many of the existing logistical issues would only be exacerbated in city centres- an area where you might suggest they are needed the least. In rural areas postal workers have to travel far and wide between deliveries. Depots are situated poles apart. Drone services might be bettered suited to less-crowded areas in the countryside.
Whatever the form a postal drone system will take on, what’s increasingly likely is that it will become a reality. But what are your thoughts on the concept? Will it revolutionise the postal service, providing us with greater levels of convenience? Or is it more likely that we’ll see flying pigs delivering parcels before any drone system is agreed? And do you even want it, or do you fear for the job security of our postal workers under the threat of automation?
Let us know.