Will Drones Help Solve the Last Mile Challenge?

Stephen DeAngelis

October 6, 2014

“For business to consumer deliveries,” writes Eoghan Dillon, Manager of Solution Design at ModusLink Global Solutions, “one of the most crucial parts in the Supply Chain is the last mile — actually getting the product into the customer’s hands.” [“The Last Mile,” Value Unchained, 16 July 2012] Dillon continues:

“In most cases when shopping online the consumer has a choice of delivery methods, either by post or more costly parcel delivery options with companies such as FedEx or UPS. One of the key challenges for any of these companies is making sure the customer is at home to sign and collect for the delivery. In many cases a missed delivery note is left at the consumer’s address and the company will either tell the customer they can collect the parcel at a local depot or they will attempt to redeliver the next day. According to a BBC report, 12% of parcel deliveries fail the first time. This is very costly for the logistics companies and very frustrating from a customer point of view.”

Now imagine a future in which a delivery company can call you to ensure that you are home and then inform you that your package will be delivered in the next 30 minutes by drone. Both you and the delivery company are likely to be less frustrated. I first discussed the use of drones to address the so-called last-mile challenge in an article entitled “Up in the Sky — Could it be Your Next Delivery?” In that article, I noted that Amazon was the company that seemed to be pushing the hardest to make drone delivery a reality. I included an Amazon-produced video to show how the system might work. I’ve also included it below.

 

 

It turns out that Amazon is not the first company, however, to put drowns to work. “Deutsche Post DHL AG said it would use a drone to deliver medication to a German island in the North Sea,” reports Jack Nicas (@jacknicas), “marking the first routine drone delivery to customers and another step in the rapid advancement of the technology.” [“Deutsche Post DHL to Deliver Medicine via Drone,” The Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2014] When most people hear the term “drone,” they immediately think of remotely piloted or autonomous air vehicles. The editorial staff at Supply Chain Digest reminds us, however, that drones can also come in land and sea varieties. It writes, “Amazon.com is piloting drone aircraft for package deliveries. A number of firms, especially in Europe, are working hard on the concept of driverless trucks. So it shouldn’t really be any surprise that work is now also being on unmanned cargo and container ships as well.” [“Global Supply Chain News: Will We Soon See Drone Cargo and Container Ships?Supply Chain Digest, 26 February 2014] To learn more about drone cargo ships, read my article entitled “Sea-faring Drones: They’re not Ghost Ships.” Drone cargo ships, however, won’t address the last-mile challenge. Drone trucks might. Nevertheless, in this article, I want to focus on drone aerial vehicles.

 

Although Amazon and DHL have been grabbing the majority of headlines, Zach Miners (@zachminers) reports, “For two years, Google has quietly been developing autonomous flying vehicles that can be used to deliver packages for disaster relief or for commerce purposes.” [“Google’s Project Wing building drone delivery service,” Computerworld, 29 August 2014] Miners continues:

“The program, dubbed Project Wing, has been housed under Google X, the company’s secretive facility where it created other projects like Google Glass and its self-driving cars. ‘Self-flying vehicles could open up entirely new approaches to moving goods — including options that are cheaper, faster, less wasteful and more environmentally sensitive than what’s possible today,’ the company says in a document describing the effort. The drones are designed to follow a pre-programmed route at the push of a button, flying at 40 to 60 meters above the ground. … ‘Even just a few of these, being able to shuttle nearly continuously, could service a very large number of people in an emergency situation,’ Astro Teller, Google’s ‘captain of moonshots,’ as it calls its big projects, told the BBC. Prototypes have already been built and tested delivering packages to remote farms in Queensland, Australia.”

Because of FAA restrictions in the United States, Australia seems to be the location of choice when it comes to experimenting with aerial drones. An Australia start-up drone company called Flirtey is also testing drone package delivery. Nick Lavars (@NickLavars) reports, “CEO Matt Sweeney has secured a partnership to conduct high-tech testing at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and is eyeing off New Zealand as a testbed to grow his business.” [“Flirtey delivery drone startup spreads its wings,” Gizmag, 3 September 2014] Sweeney told Lavars, “We will still be based in Sydney, but expand to have an office on campus at the University of Nevada in Reno, with access to its indoor flight test facilities.” Lavars continues:

“Part of this arrangement will see Flirtey recruit graduates from the Unmanned Autonomous Systems minor at the UNR’s College of Engineering. There is more at play than scooping up bright-eyed young roboticists, however, with the university situated in one of the few areas in the US for which drone testing has been approved.”

Concerning drone testing, Sweeney told Lavars, “Congress had mandated that outdoor drone activity be rolled out by September 2015. But because the FAA is experiencing significant delays, their strategy is to set up six test sites in the meantime, and we’ll be located in one of them.” The FAA is moving cautiously because more than a few people are concerned about thousands of drones buzzing around delivering packages. Miners writes, “Having unmanned vehicles buzzing around towns delivering packages seems like a radical and potentially dangerous endeavor, but Google’s involvement further validates the idea.” Jaikumar Vijayan (@jaivijayan) reports that companies interested in using drones in their business are anxious to get moving and are pressuring the FAA to release the rules under which drones can be used sooner rather than later. [“Pressure builds on FAA to release drone rules,” Computerworld, 4 September 2014] Vijayan reports:

“Ever since the Obama administration’s FAA Modernization Act of 2012 cleared the way for commercial drones in the U.S., the FAA has been working to craft safety rules for private drone operators. But to the growing frustration of drone lobbyists and several industry trade groups, the FAA is still more than a year away from releasing anything final. Until then, commercial entities like Amazon and Google are prohibited from operating or even testing their drones outdoors.”

The organization putting the most pressure on the FAA is the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which represents the drone industry. In a letter to the FAA, AUVSI wrote, “We cannot afford any further delays. The technology is advancing faster than the regulations to govern it. The current regulatory void has left American entrepreneurs and others either sitting on the sidelines or operating in the absence of appropriate safety guidelines.” Vijayan indicates that AUVSI claims, “The drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in revenue in 10 years, once the rules are finalized.” In the meantime, “Every year that integration is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact.” Vijayan reports that the FAA could release operating rules as early as the end of this year. He concludes, “While the FAA’s rules are unlikely to answer all of the privacy questions that advocacy groups have posed, they should at least help address some of the public’s safety concerns.” The FAA isn’t the only organization concerned about safety. Flirtey CEO Sweeney told Lavars that his company was also concerned about safety. He stated, “Our aim is to establish a safety track record and history of secure commercial delivery of items such as urgent parcels, medical supplies and even fast food.” Google has also stressed that its drones won’t go into operation until it’s certain that it can operate safely. Miners reports, “The company stressed that these are early days for Project Wing and it might be years before testing is complete. For the next year, Google will focus on the safety system for the drones, teaching them to navigate around each other and handle events like mechanical trouble.

 

Moreover, Google said, ‘we have to fly efficient delivery routes’ that take into account the public’s concerns about noise and privacy violations and don’t threaten ‘the safety of those on the ground.’ Ultimately, the company said, ‘we have to be good enough to deliver to an exact spot the size of a doorstop.'” In another article, Lavars reports that MIT researchers are working on algorithms that will help make drones safer and more efficient. [“MIT algorithm lets delivery drones monitor their health in real-time,” Gizmag, 25 August 2014] He writes:

“The prospect of delivery drones brings with it a few notable issues. Beyond visions of colliding rotor blades and unsolicited package drops lies another problem: the huge amount of computational power needed to take into account real world uncertainties, such as strong winds, limited battery life and navigational errors, in order to provide a reliable delivery service. This has been the focus of new study from MIT, with a team of researchers devising a new algorithm said to massively reduce the level of computation required, enabling the drone to monitor its ‘health’ in real time.”

With all of the attention being lavished on aerial drones, I suspect that we will one day start seeing them show up at our door delivering that package we ordered online just a little while before. But “one day” could be a long time coming. Preston Gralla notes (@pgralla) that, in addition to safety and regulatory concerns, issues like “hacking, hijacking and making sure drones don’t fly near airports” all need to be worked out. And how about privacy issues? Drones will require cameras for navigation and delivery — will they be allowed to use the video of your home that they capture during deliveries to your house? [“Drones are the new Pets.com,” Computerworld, 8 September 2014] His conclusion: “Because of all this, commercial use of drones is a long time away — and their use in delivery may never come.” Obviously, DHL is already putting them to use over the ocean. I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait and see when they will be used over land.