Imagine ordering a pizza or toothpaste, and instead of it arriving in under an hour via moped or sedan (the pizza), or two days later via courier, they arrive in under 15 minutes, from the sky.? How long until that happens? In some places it already is.
For many of us, the idea of a swarm of drones buzzing overhead, delivering everything from sushi to groceries to phone cases still seems like pie in the sky. Indeed, the prospect of packages dropping on our heads or errant drones smashing into our homes, cars, or even commercial jets, are the reasons why strict regulations continue to remain in place throughout the world, holding back, to some extent, the burgeoning drone delivery industry (it’s still growing: in the U.S. alone from a $40 million industry in 2012 to $1 billion in 2017)
But that probably won’t last long. That’s because consumers have a swiftly growing appetite for faster and faster delivery – after all, it only takes the touch of a button to order an item, why shouldn’t delivery be equally instantaneous? While we customers crave almost instant deliveries, retailers are still bound by huge logistical costs and the enormous challenges of last mile delivery, including faraway fulfillment centers, prohibitive costs and traffic snarls. That’s why e-retailers are having such a tough time figuring out how to adapt to this on-demand revolution. Drone delivery then seems a faster, more environmentally friendly, cheaper and efficient future.
But will drone delivery solutions really fly?
The good news is that over the past several years, there has been a salient shift in regulatory attitudes towards drone delivery as an inevitability which needs to be facilitated rather than a dangerous, far-fetched idea which regulation should keep permanently grounded.
In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is launching its UAS Integration Pilot Program which invites governmental bodies in select cities to partner with private sector entities to jointly accelerate safe Unmanned Aerial Systems. The program aims to provide comprehensive solutions for a wide array of issues, including advanced Universal Traffic Management, security procedures, anti-hacking protection, medical supply deliveries, as well as general commercial use.
In the EU, countries such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands are currently working on a U-Space for commercial drones – “the European Commission’s vision for the safe, secure and efficient handling of drone traffic and a key enabler for the growing drone market to generate economic and societal benefits.” And the UK recently introduced its own automated drone tracking system in a bid to get its own program off the ground.
With on-demand delivery quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception (see Target’s $550million acquisition of on-demand delivery company Shipt), retailers are scrambling for airborne solutions. Amazon, predictably, has a seemingly constant stream of new patents, including ones for flying warehouses, with Walmart not far behind. Alphabet is also flying high, testing its own drone delivery program in Australia. Indeed, today’s advanced drone systems can already navigate tricky urban cityscapes including skyscrapers, utilizing advanced AI to communicate with fellow drones as an extra precaution to avoid collisions, and the technology continues to advance with leaps and bounds.
The public seems to be embracing it as well, with studies demonstrating growing public acceptance for speedier drone deliveries.
This is not to say challenges don’t exist. The technology still needs to be improved to demonstrate to skeptical consumers and regulators alike that UAVs represent a safer mode of transportation than road delivery. Drone companies are also investing heavily in cybersecurity to prevent hackers from turning innocent sushi deliveries into.
Privacy issues must also be solved (e.g. how can we prevent delivery drones from gathering information about your home from above). But ultimately, the real challenge will be one of perception, public acceptance of the inevitable fleets of drones overhead. The biggest psychological barriers we have to overcome are similar to the ones our society will have to accept before autonomous, driverless cars take over our streets: autonomous systems can have accidents, yet they can continue and improve, while we can’t. Thus they’re the best option we have. Who’s to blame for an accident? Which insurer should pay? I’m pretty sure these are questions we’ll see more and more often, and solutions will follow.
But with the clear advantages on-demand drone delivery presents – almost instantaneous fulfillment at lower costs, less congested roads, fewer accidents and cleaner skies to name just a few – don’t be surprised if that pizza arrives via the friendly skies far sooner than you might expect.