The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all even more reliant on the army of delivery drivers, motorbike riders and cycle couriers that bring our goods to our door. Everything from groceries and clothes to gadgets, books and cosmetics seems to come via a knock at the door.
But what’s the next step?
If you believe some analysts, it’s delivery drones. It might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but rapid advances in drone technology in recent years means they could be closer to reality than you’d think.
Couple this with huge strides in autonomous transport and your delivery vehicle could be making its own way to your door without the help of a human hand at all.
We’re already witnessing the beginning of this. Drone delivery company Wing operates in two Australian cities, Helsinki in Finland and is trialling operations in the USA as of spring 2020.
In the US, it’s partnering with FedEx and pharmacy retailer Walgreens. Wing says its aerial drones can deliver packages over a distance of six kilometres in just six minutes. As the crow flies, naturally.
Of course, not all delivery drones fly. Another type of delivery drone is the wheeled version, and an early commercial application of this is a friendly-looking robot called ‘Serve’. He’s a four-wheeled vehicle that resembles a shopping cart and delivers take-out food on behalf of the Postmates app in the Los Angeles area.
This service began operation in 2019, and can deliver up to 50lb (25kg) packages – that’s a lot better than Wing’s limit of 3lb (1.5kg). It’s a fair bit slower than an aerial drone, though. Amazon Prime began field-testing a similar proposition, called ‘Scout’ in 2019, although it has six wheels to Serve’s four.
Commercial applications for delivery drones are still very much a nascent technology, however; according to analyst firm Gartner, only 1% of businesses are currently seriously looking into the idea of using delivery drones. But this could soon change.
Chinese retailer JD.com is predicting a strong surge in demand for retailer drone operation – up to 70% per year. This would mean it alone would operate a flee of almost 2 million drones by 2028. If that figure were to be replicated elsewhere in the world, our skies and streets could be bustling with driverless deliveries before we know it.
But what are the benefits and potential drawbacks of this innovative tech? Let’s take a look.
Quality aerial imaging
UAVs are excellent for capturing aerial videos and photographs and collecting significant amounts of high-resolution imaging data. This data can be utilised in the creation of interactive 3D maps and models which can be used in a number of ways, such as mapping disaster areas to prepare rescue teams before they enter a potentially dangerous environment.
With constant advances and developments in control technology, the majority of UAVs can be operated and deployed with relative ease. UAVs have a wider range of movement than aircraft controlled by pilots and are able to fly safely in more directions and at a lower level, enabling controllers to access and navigate hard-to-reach areas.
Short flight times
A number of UAVs require frequent battery replacement depending on the type of model and battery used, which can significantly reduce their time in flight. Flight times can also be affected by weather, as strong winds and headwinds can increase power consumption. Most drones have a flight time of approximately 25 minutes, but smaller, close-range UAVs can have a flight time as short as 5 to 6 minutes.
Potential for accidents
If a UAV flies over a large crowd of people, there is always the chance that a malfunction might occur which could stop the UAV mid-flight and cause it to fall on someone and cause serious injury or even death. Not all UAV operators are properly trained on how to fly their drones before purchasing them, and in extreme cases, UAVs have caused serious accidents regarding collisions with helicopters and other aircraft.