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Amazon drones on again


News broke earlier this week that the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is to allow Amazon to test delivery drones – flying in the face of the received wisdom that this idea had been grounded some time ago.
The trials will involve drones with a 2.3kg (5lb) payload, or less – parcels of this weight are said to make up around 90% of Amazon’s sales. During the tests drones will be limited to an altitude of 122m (400ft), and will be kept away from airport flightpaths.

Currently, drones can’t be flown within 50 metres of a building or a person under UK laws, which precludes the use of drones for deliveries. They must also remain within line of sight of the pilot/operator at a maximum distance of 500 metres. Anyone wishing to fly drones in a commercial context must also complete a training course and hold a permit from the CAA.

Sebastien Ruffino, VP of B2B products at TomTom, expressed a view held by many, that drones are not a realistic mass market delivery option. “Amazon testing drones for its deliveries will be a step forward for home deliveries. But it’s not going to overtake the whole industry. Drones will have their role to play, but they won’t replace delivery companies who embrace connected mobility.

“Drones can quickly deploy small packages, but they can’t enter buildings and there will be instances where they can’t complete certain deliveries. The connected touch of a person in a delivery vehicle will still be needed. But they need to have data at their fingertips: routing, traffic and schedule information as well as customer preferences, completion forms and escalation procedures.

“We need convergence across all approaches to provide the best and most personalised experience for customers. We’re starting to see companies with smart devices send real-time alerts to their drivers. They can pinpoint a vehicle’s location and status, re-route it and update its schedules remotely and in real time.”

Speaking at an event in London earlier this year, Morten Villberg, CEO of DHL Parcel UK & Nordics, said that to accommodate all its daily postal needs in Berlin alone, DHL would have to have a drone take to the air every six seconds.

Mark Denton, head of retail propositions at BT Expedite is one of the more positive voices where drones are concerned. “The last mile is the most visible part of the delivery supply chain – it’s the interaction between the brand and the customer. Since it was first announced, the image of hundreds of drones, dropping parcels as they go, has been widely spread as an almost sci-fi image.

“But it’s an image that has moved a step closer to reality. As consumers are getting more demanding around quicker and quicker deliveries, Amazon continues to pioneer. With recent announcements around Starship (the road delivery vehicles) we could see a land vs air battle to come. Ultimately faster delivery times will be well received by consumers, but will concerns around security and privacy turn them off?”

The eDelivery view:

As drone technology becomes more sophisticated and affordable the number of potential uses for it will expand. There is more to this that the question of whether drones are technically capable of making deliveries. That is already happening; DHL started using drones for delivery to the island of Juist in the North Sea.

But despite this latest turn of events, the case for wider use of delivery drones hasn’t changed. With small payloads, restricted flightpaths and close pilot supervision, the economics aren’t as great as some people wish them to be. From a safety perspective, there are many questions yet to be addressed. Whether that’s the inclusion of parachutes to avoid dead-drop scenarios in the event of mid-air failure, or the potentially more sinister threat of hacking, hijacking and weaponising.

One only has to look at the current state of emergency declared in France to appreciate the low chances of wholesale drone adoption. Whether a copter-type or something like the Starship wheeled drones, the potential for one being hijacked and used for terrorist purposes can’t be completely ignored, for all that it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Amazon has made a lot of noise about using drones in the past. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that a lot of noise has been made about it, chiefly by others.

The challenge of fixing the ills of the last mile will require a combination of different solutions. Drones will have a valuable role to play in the right circumstances. There is, however, a risk that by being over-hyped they will be written off as a failed venture.

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