Are Drones Going to Take Over Last Mile Delivery? (Spoiler: Not any time soon)

Drones – even the name sounds ominous. Drones have been around far longer than most people realize, mostly because they were top-secret military weapons since the Mid-1960s. It’s only in the last decade that drones, from a military perspective, have become widely known.

As with many technologies, after being proven valuable in battle, the private sector saw huge potential in the peace-time benefits of drones. Nowadays, any kid can walk in to a store and buy a drone of his or her own – something that even science fiction couldn’t have imagined.

It was Doc Holiday who said “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” Given the recent passing of October 15, 2015, the date in which Marty and Doc traveled to the future, it’s a good time to look at how drones are making their impact on industries that rely on deliveries.

It’s no secret that the last-mile delivery (the final leg of the supply chain) space is ripe for disruption; the problem is efficiency, scale, and cost. But the disruption is already happening, in the form of technology that is based on a realistic model: humans… on the ground. While Uber, Postmates, and others are muscling their way into the space, the businesses that already provide these services are scrambling to level-up, in order to provide both the user experience the end consumer expects, as well as the scale and efficiency needed to be successful in the last mile.

Amazon, ever the first-mover, made a huge splash in the last few months by launching something that once seemed purely science fiction – delivering goods using drones.

Amazon Air Prime was all the rage when it was first announced, as I am sure Amazon wanted it to be. But beyond all the glitz and glamour, a rational analysis makes it pretty clear that it’s not a sustainable model.. and, quite frankly, pretty silly.

Here’s a question: have you ever been to New York City? Walked down the street on a business day while everyone is trying to get to work?

Could you imagine what it would be like if hundreds, if not thousands of drones were buzzing in every direction?

And then let’s look at the fine print of how Amazon Air Prime works. The FAA, after not allowing Amazon to move forward with their plan gave them permission to test the concept… with significant restrictions:

  1. The drones cannot fly out of site of the person controlling them
  2. They can’t fly over 400 feet (due to commercial aircraft)
  3. They can only deliver on clear days
  4. Packages must weight less than 50 pounds

It’s true, some of these probably don’t impact the viability of Prime Air. For example, most items bought on Amazon are below 50 pounds, and Jeff Bezos has made it clear that his drones will only carry packages that are 5 pounds and under. However, requiring the operator to constantly be in view of the drone while it’s making deliveries could definitely pose an issue.

FAA limitations aside, let’s consider other implications. Back in May of 2015 there was a well-documented incidents in which a drone was accidentally flown around or over the White House. As a result, there was an immediate lock down. Can you imagine, our nations capital was locked down because of this! Now imagine 10,000 drones buzzing around every urban area in the United States and what kind of mayhem that would cause.

The truth is, there are very real issues with the wide use of drones. First of all, drones were invented and perfected by the military, for use by the military. Their potential danger when in the hands of the wrong person are obvious. Secondly, in a city like New York, where there are millions of people thronged in the streets, remote controlled drones buzzing around pose a real and present danger.

It’s not like it’s without precedent to be concerned about drones crashing into buildings in large cities.

We also can’t be naive as to the cunning of criminals, or even just the every day person. A small drone flying around with a potentially very expensive item in its claws is very easy prey. Instead of robbing a store, someone could find a drone mid flight, knock it out of the air with a variety of means (rocks, guns, sticks, you name it) and walk off with the goods. It’s not like someone will fight them off.

Back let’s get back to Amazon Prime Air in terms of logistics. Yes, Amazon has created one of the most efficient distribution operations known to man. They have nearly 100 fulfillment centers all over the world, but as technology stands today drones have a distance of about ten miles… at least according to Bezos. But you have to remember, the current FAA rules require that a drone not be out of site of its operator.

Let’s take New York City as an example. Amazon has a fulfillment center right smack in the middle of Manhattan, on 34th street. In order to deliver on the promise of a delivery getting there within 30 minutes, anywhere in the city, there would still need to be drone operators moving throughout the city with trucks to carry their items, only to park, get out of their trucks, attach the package to the drone, and fly it off somewhere that is no farther than their line of site.

The financial and resource investments could not be justified.

And that’s just New York City!

Back on Earth, the last-mile delivery conundrum is being discussed by many. In the final analysis, the factors that are most important in last mile delivery include:

  1. Easy communication between the deliverer and the consumer
  2. Efficient distribution of delivery tasks, in order to cut the time needed from when an order is made until it is delivered
  3. Full visibility by the dispatcher over their fleet of drivers
  4. Providing the consumer with a fantastic user experience

The Ubers of the world are starting to move in by leveraging a lot of these factors with their own fleets, but other businesses can level up and begin to give the same user experience that consumers are now expecting. But, it’s important to keep your head out of the clouds and focus on reality.

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