• Drone Delivery Service
  • Drone Technology
  • Transportation Efficiencies
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
  • Policy and Regulations

Test Failures Show Drone Delivery Services Are Still Working out Growing Pains

William Drier
May 22, 2018

At face value, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, seem to be an excellent solution for last mile and last meter logistics. In the past view years there have been a number entrants into the drone delivery service (DDS) space; both Amazon and Google have completed proof of concept deliveries using their drones, as has Reno-based Flirtey, to name a few.

In addition to these test deliveries for e-commerce orders, there are some ongoing pilot programs transporting higher value goods (i.e., medical supplies) in an effort to both speed up deliveries and reduce travel times. Startup Matternet is working on establishing automated deliveries between hospitals, and Zipline is delivering blood in Rwanda where traditional delivery methods are time prohibitive.

The Value Add Is There

UAVs seem like a logical fit for many of these deliveries, and they also have the potential to reduce the cost of the most expensive piece of the logistics supply chain. According to research by Honeywell in 2016, last mile logistics make up over 50% of the costs of a delivery process. UAVs can reduce costs by decreasing delivery times, complementing human delivery drivers in some scenarios (such as UAV-integrated delivery vehicles), and removing them in others (like transporting your online order directly from a warehouse to your front door).

Challenges to Overcome

As with all things, the devil is in the details. Deliveries in rural areas are costly for logistics companies, with routes that are often longer and have fewer drop-offs—reducing efficiency. Earlier this month, the Russian Postal Service set out to showcase its proof of concept in Serbia, using a UAV to deliver the mail. This application seems to fit the bill on adding value. The route for this event and the payload were preplanned, and a crowd gathered to watch the future of delivery. However, just seconds after takeoff the drone crashed into a wall and forced onlookers to jump out of the way to avoid the falling vehicle.

Regulators Value DDS, but Not More Than Public Safety

There are many variables that need to be understood and accounted for before we begin to see these applications take hold. These include the following:

  • How DDS will navigate within an urban environment and around infrastructure
  • What safety measures are needed when operating DDS above people
  • How DDS will tackle the intricacies of apartment deliveries
  • How DDS will operate with wind shear and inclement weather
  • How to manage UAV traffic when there are much larger fleets

Test runs and pilot programs that end successfully are great for the industry. The ability of UAVs to safely and reliably carry out tasks will be an indicator for regulators around the world to allow for the technology’s commercial operation. But tests that end in failure—such as the Russian Postal Service’s attempt—are the reason why regulations are important and why they will be slow to change until these technologies are proven and reliable. Companies operating in this space will need to keep their noses to the grindstone in order to show success and win over regulators.

Navigant Research’s recent report, Capturing New Commercial Opportunities with Unmanned Vehicles, provides insight into the growing commercial unmanned vehicle space. It includes details on the regulatory environment, which many UAVs will need to work alongside until governments feel the technology is capable of tackling more complex challenges.