Drones. What are they good for? Absolutely… well not quite nothing.
For sure, the numbers cited by McKinsey & Co. in the original article are impressive – with 1.5 million global drone deliveries by the end of 2022, up from under half a million in 2021 – but it’s important to look at the operational realities.
As the CEO of Gophr – a last-mile delivery solution which uses cutting-edge tech to maximise operations – Seb Robert has his own take on drones and the benefits and challenges involved.
Sky high prices
Whenever you are looking to invest in new technologies, one of the first things you ask yourself is – what’s the cost? If you’re not asking yourself that question, then your CFO certainly is. There are a lot of assumptions that drones will seamlessly integrate into the delivery process, but this fails to take into account whether the adoption of this new technology is financially viable.
Aside from the actual costs of the kit (which are north of a thousand pounds per drone – and you’ll need more than one) and the ongoing maintenance, drones currently offer a poor return on investment.
How many parcels can a drone deliver at a time? One. Two. Maybe three at a push. Meanwhile, a van, car, or even bike can batch delivery. A van can deliver 350+ parcels on a single route.
An average Uber rider can drop off four parcels in an hour. Both can also pick up along the route as well as deliver. Doing the same represents a lot of back and forth for a single drone or even a lot – or should that be a swarm! – of drones.
Either way, the price by mile is expensive which will have to be made up somewhere. And that somewhere is probably with the customer.
Location. Location. Location
The next question you need to be asking is – what environment you are operating in?
Most ecommerce delivery and particularly same-day delivery is going to be in densely populated urban areas. So you’d think drones would be the perfect solution. Traffic on the road, head to the skies and skip the queues. Faster deliveries and therefore happier customers.
Sounds too good to be true right? Because it is.
First, there are the health and safety implications. As more ecommerce brands look to adopt drone delivery, you are going to see a very busy airspace. There’s real potential here for midair collisions. Cloudy weather with a chance of falling parcels, anyone? And the descent to make the delivery at the doorstep / in the front garden is also fraught with dangers.
Then you’ve got the noise and disturbance issue. Drones are effectively mini-helicopters, and en masse that is a lot of noise pollution. Even the US military hasn’t been able to keep the noise down and they’ve been working on it for over half a century!
Plus, once you factor in the privacy issues, suspicion around ‘UFOs’ flying over people’s homes and heads then you’re looking at a fair few barriers to mass adoption.
The problem with city living
But the crux of the matter is that our cities are not really well suited for such services. There are some amazing examples of drone delivery working well and providing a vital service – medical deliveries in the Australian Bush, in the most remote areas of Africa.
Navigating through tower blocks, high streets and busy city centres is going to take very smart programming or a skilled pilot to avoid unexpected obstacles. Plus what happens when a delivery needs to be made to the 15th floor of an office building and the window can’t open?
We’ve seen similar urban challenges with robotic delivery solutions, which I believe have the potential to make a more immediate impact on the delivery sector. There have been some successes in controlled environments such as university campuses which are more access-friendly than your typical city. But as soon as they hit some steps, or have to press a buzzer to enter a building, then their use is diminished.
The human touch
Finally, with drones and robotics, you’re going to be compromising on that doorstep experience, and the dexterity that humans offer. AI is not always comfortable with sudden change, and if you’re going to run a successful ecommerce delivery service then you need to be adaptable. And an experienced courier, who knows the route and the job like the back of their hand, is a vital asset.
Let’s not replace them just yet.
From Seb Robert, CEO of Gophr