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Coming soon: invasion of the drones


Drones attract their fair share of critics, not least from the readership of eDelivery, many of whom have expressed the view that they are little more than pie in the sky. But don’t write them off as nothing more than the reserve of the sci-fi world, says Liam Chennells, head of commercial at Shutl. Their application in everyday life is already taking shape, with trials underway across the globe ranging from delivering blood tests in rural Africa to pizza in more urban areas.

Liam Chennells, Shutl

Liam Chennells, Shutl

As with any new innovation, there will always be questions asked before it is accepted by the wider public psyche, particularly concerning safety. The point here is that no responsible business would consider rolling out a drone initiative without ensuring that the necessary safety precautions are in place.

With organisations such as Amazon and NASA joining forces, huge amounts of time and resource are being invested in drone research. Put simply, this wouldn’t be happening if they didn’t think the vehicles had significant potential and were safe to operate.

Then there are the naysayers who cite risks from external factors such as weather and human interception as to why drones will never take off. They seem to forget that deliveries on the ground could just as easily be impacted by snow, stolen while in transit or vehicles involved in accidents.

If drones can improve customer experience – and evidence suggests that they can meet shopper demands for immediacy, control and convenience – it isn’t a case of ‘if’, it’s a case of ‘when’ these delivery vehicles are implemented.

With commercial air space between 200 and 400 feet currently unoccupied – too low for passenger aircraft and too high to interfere with what’s going on at ground level – we already have the perfect place for drone flying.

The biggest unknown quantity lies with the drone technology and its ability to cope with the unexpected. For example, what if a drone is hit by a bird or it shuts down mid flight? The simple answer is that a parachute is deployed.

From a security point of view, if a drone is intercepted by an unscrupulous person, then the vehicle can pin-point the exact time and location of the incident. Captured images can be relayed of what happened and tracking data transmitted to show where the drone is being taken so that a follow up investigation can be made. Also, being able to shut down a captured drone remotely will effectively make it worthless and therefore less appealing to steal in the first place.

Then there’s the challenge of deciding routes that the vehicles will take. Essentially it comes down to four factors:

  • Terrain – accounting for hills, trees and buildings
  • Airspace – avoiding airports or other areas with restricted airspace
  • Population density – avoiding flying over crowded public areas such as schools
  • Weather – not taking off under certain conditions such as high winds

Realistically, drones are unlikely to be used for distances much longer than a few miles and there will be a limit to the weight that they can physically carry. Some technology will see the vehicles land on compatible landing pads where the propellers shut down so that the package can be safely unloaded while other vehicles will be capable of dropping small packages on the ground without the need to land.

Before being widely adopted though, early commercial use of drones is likely to focus on short business-to-business deliveries. These could be taking light cargo from a warehouse to a designated vehicle it will be delivered on, thereby reducing congestion in warehouses and distribution centres.

It won’t be until the novelty wears off and public confidence in drone use increases that the vehicles will really come into their own.

Ultimately, drones will become just another means of transporting an item from A to B. Instead of booking a van or a courier on a bike, we’ll reach a point where a drone will be selected as the most effective and efficient option of delivering the job in hand.

For now though, it may difficult for many people to envisage drones flying up and down our streets but while politicians continue to call for less congested roads and customer demand for immediate fulfillment increases, it’s time to accept that this reality is getting ever closer.

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