Using cargo drones in last-mile delivery
Technology won’t be the biggest challenge
The discussion about the future of mobility should not be about futuristic scenarios with flying cars and passenger drones; it should be about solving real problems. Let’s zoom in on cargo drones and how they can play an important role in last-mile delivery.
By Maarten Oonk - 7 May 2018
Future mobility systems
When it comes to the future of mobility, the topic of conversation is often passenger drones and flying cars. These vehicles seem to be mainly push products: a cool gadget for the rich and famous. They do not solve a real problem, at least not in the short run.
A recent and interesting article about these futuristic forms of mobility discussed the challenges for their implementation. The article focuses mainly on flying cars and only indirectly mentions cargo drones, while I think the latter are more interesting in the short run. Cargo drones can, in actual fact, play a crucial role in last-mile delivery. But what challenges have to be overcome before cargo drones become part of our mobility systems?
It’s not the technology
First of all: the big challenge won’t be technology. Moving cargo from one place to another with a drone is already possible. And now that next to startups a lot of big companies like Amazon, Airbus, Google and Uber have launched R&D programs for cargo drones, this technology will develop quicker than ever. There is a business opportunity that will accelerate the performance / cost ratio of the required technology.
In more harsh environments like Africa and Canada, cargo drones already transport medication to remote areas. And currently the Dutch Department of Infrastructure and a few other organisations are investigating whether cargo drones can play a role in urgent transports of medication to the island of Schiermonnikoog.
In densely populated areas cargo drones can help solve several problems that cities, and companies, face nowadays. Parcel delivery is important for our economy – it is growing exponentially – but the cars delivering the parcels fill our roads, pollute our air and operate highly ineffectively. E-commerce companies are searching for new and cost-efficient ways for last-mile delivery for a reason. And that is where cargo drones come in.
What are they?
Cargo drones are electric or hybrid-electric vehicles with four or more rotors, which can move cargo from one point to another through the air. These drones can be manually piloted, remotely piloted or fly autonomously.
If we want them to replace the trucks and vans currently delivering our parcels, we must use autonomous drones that can fly from distribution centers to specific addresses. So if technology isn’t an obstacle for their implementation in our city landscape, what is? And how can we overcome those obstacles?
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Current hurdles and looking at the future
Regulation for cargo drones
Laws and regulations need to be changed if we want cargo drones to fly above urban environments. Now, a drone operator must for example be able to see (if not control) the drone first-hand throughout the entire flight. This regulation leaves no room for autonomous drones, the ones that we should use for last-mile delivery. Changing laws takes time, but our Dutch polder model serves us well.
Cybercrime and cargo drones
Just like every connected device cargo drones can be hacked. The impact of a hack of an autonomous vehicle like this can be large; therefore, security, safety and ethics by design should be prerequisites for any drone that is allowed entrance to our airspace. This might sound obvious, but designing like this is costly and therefore often not something developers do in the first phase of development.
Acceptance of cargo drones
Public, industrial and personal interests do not always coincide. Using cargo drones for last-mile delivery might take time, because the public is not ready for it. We obviously don’t want to live in a city where thousands of buzzing drones are coming and going. But what is an acceptable number of drones in the air? New successful digitally driven businesses thrive on convenience. So we need to make getting a parcel from a cargo drone so convenient that we are willing to give something in return.
Operations of cargo drones
What will a city with cargo drones coming and going look like? Will parcel delivery companies operate the drones or will there be special operators that can organize more effectively the delivery of the parcels? Will the drones fly from distribution centers or from trucks parked in a strategic position?
We tend to focus on technology when we are talking about the future mobility. But, as mentioned above: technology won’t be the biggest challenge in shaping this future. Other conditions are more challenging, and addressing those will be possible only through strong collaboration in the tripartite system of government, industry and knowledge institutions. It will also help if we focus on solving real problems, like last-mile delivery. The cargo drone is imminent.
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