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Delivery drones: A dream deferred?

Joseph Flaig

Credit: iStock
Credit: iStock

Richard sits at home in rural Cambridgeshire.

Looking for something to do and slightly peckish, he taps an order for popcorn and a TV streaming device on his tablet. Thirteen minutes later, he is part of history.

The items were delivered by drone – and it was Amazon’s first commercial use of the technology. The highly orchestrated and publicised test last December was hailed as the future of retail, and the company predicts that “one day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road”.

Now the initial excitement has died down, are commercial drone deliveries simply part of a wider trend towards automation, a true game-changer or just a publicity stunt? A new report from research group IDTechEx, Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037, suggests the short-term potential has been exaggerated and their use is unlikely to spread beyond rural areas for at least 10 years.

“Many, many challenges” must be overcome before large drone fleets start operating, report author Khasha Ghaffarzadeh tells Professional Engineering. “You have technology problems: is it productive enough, can it go far enough, is the battery life long enough, can it carry a huge weight?”

Amazon’s first autonomous drone is limited to carrying items weighing 2.7kg or less, and other companies are likely to have similar limits. Existing batteries also limit flight length to about 30 minutes from base – Richard lives “just over the horizon” from the Cambridgeshire depot.

Delivery for you… a drone carries a parcel to a customer (credit: iStock)
A delivery drone takes to the skies (Credit: iStock)

A swarm of concerns 

Safety is also a huge worry, says Ghaffarzadeh, with “many accidents waiting to happen” if self-flying drones go AWOL. Civil Aviation Authority rules state that all drones must be at least 150m from congested areas and 50m away from people, vehicles and structures. Equivalent agencies in other countries have similar, if not stricter, rules, making rural, remote and suburban areas more likely to see services first.

Logistics company DHL is one of the pioneers in this field. Since the maiden flight of its first-generation Parcelcopter in 2013, it has flown between the German mainland and the North Sea island of Juist, then between the Bavarian ski resort of Reit im Winkl and the Winklmoosalm mountain plateau. The fully automated process, which first used a four-rotor quadrocopter design before moving to a tiltwing aircraft, ferried medicines and other urgently needed goods to isolated communities. The system is flexible and quick for customers, says DHL director Jürgen Gerdes.

Amazon’s Cambridgeshire quadrocopter trial quickly expanded to dozens of potential customers, but is yet to deliver in a town or city. However, a spokesman tells PE that the company is working on several different prototypes for various environments.

“Our customers live in a wide variety of buildings,” he says. “Some live in rural farmhouses, some live in high-rise city skyscrapers, and everything in between. We eventually want to be able to serve as many of our customers as we can.”

Drones will not fully replace vans, says the company, but it is busy creating air traffic management software at five centres around the globe.

Ready for take off 

Some are much more positive about the sector’s future than Ghaffarzadeh. In 2016, a researcher for supplier Drones Direct said delivery “is anticipated to be the largest area of growth for commercial drone usage”. The company predicts that other retailers will follow early adopters as average battery life and range improves.

“Drones are an efficient mode of transport for deliveries as they are electric and therefore have a lower carbon footprint than typical logistic solutions,” says Richard Walker from Drones Direct. “They are also able to occupy airspace which is less congested than road networks, shortening delivery times and journeys. As technology innovations continue, such as collision avoidance, dual GPS modules, dual batteries, and dual flight controllers, the cost of drones will continue to fall, making them an even more attractive way of transporting items.”

Battery life and lifting power are some of the concerns surrounding delivery drones (Credit: iStock)
Battery life and lifting power present challenges for delivery drones (Credit: iStock)

Despite some companies’ success, others may have lost enthusiasm for the idea since an initial flurry of excitement a couple of years ago. In 2015, The Telegraph reported that Royal Mail “was looking at following suit” after trials from Amazon, Google and Swiss Post. As with others, Royal Mail chief executive Moya Greene reportedly said that rural areas could be the first to experience the service if a project went ahead.

“I don’t think it is going to be to every single address, I think it is going to work in more remote places where you don’t have to deliver too much,” she said at the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference, as The Telegraph reported. “I’d love to see things like that.”

But when PE contacted Royal Mail, spokesman Mark Street said he was “not able to help” with several questions about the idea, including whether the concept was investigated further or whether any trials were planned. He refused to say why the organisation would not comment.

Technical limitations and regulations mean that drone deliveries are “very hard to commercialise” and are currently little more than a marketing tool, says Ghaffarzadeh. The “ultimate prize” of near-instant fulfilment means companies will continue investing, but the technology will not flourish for at least a decade, he claims – after that, it will remain “only a small part of the much bigger commercial drone story”.

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