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Will Drones Really Work in the Supply Chain?

A drone-led revolution in the delivery industry is possible, but it’ll require some major overhaul.

18Jul

Amazon shocked and delighted the public when it announced its plan to use drones for delivery. Since then, the detractors have worried about safety hazards and the loss of jobs for drivers. The enthusiasts have welcomed the idea, hoping for a futuristic world where drones are as common as birds.

Although it’s a trendy topic and lends itself to all sorts of discussions, drones are unlikely to become the dominant delivery method in the foreseeable future. Decades ago, people thought we’d have flying cars. That didn’t happen, and for many of the same reasons, your neighborhood probably won't be crawling with delivery drones anytime soon.

First, our existing infrastructure doesn’t support a drone-dominated delivery system. For trucks and vans, there are roads and addresses. What route does a drone take? What if there’s something in the way? But also, a huge influx of loud, heavy, and relatively dangerous machines constantly flying around would drive everyone crazy. Think about how many packages Amazon sends on a daily basis; the noise alone would be maddening. The stress of them zooming past your head all day would be even worse.

There is potential for a limited amount of drone deliveries, especially under certain circumstances like deliveries to rural or remote locations. But drones will never be a mainstream industry standard.

We will continue to see gimmicky test runs and awkward marketing forays related to drones. They make for nice viral videos, but it’s clear they’re mostly for show.

For example, Domino’s recently delivered a pizza with a drone in New Zealand. Most Americans might be able to identify Auckland or Wellington as cities in New Zealand, but far fewer are familiar with Whangaparaoa. It’s a suburban peninsula of around 30,000 inhabitants, but it's still quite rural despite some recent growth. In short, it’s the ideal place for a drone run: close enough to a big city, but still far removed from tall buildings and traffic. Domino’s called it a proof of concept, but the conditions in this experiment were still completely different from a delivery to a New York City apartment.

Some drone-related concepts have been designed with more populated areas in mind. Amazon has proposed an infrastructure of 'hives' for bigger cities, which seems much more efficient than having a fleet of cars driving through bumper-to-bumper traffic. But even so, the amount of drone traffic these massive structures would create would be a logistical nightmare. Municipal regulations and zoning laws would also hinder their implementation with plenty of red tape.

Even more audacious is Amazon’s patent for a kind of sky warehouse, a giant blimp that carries cargo and hovers over cities, waiting for drones to come and bring packages down to customers. To answer questions about both product and civilian safety during drone landings, Amazon also filed a patent for drone parachutes. There’s no shortage of ideas coming out of Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. Time will tell which, if any, will actually take off.

In the short term, a more autonomous approach is more likely. We will continue to see ground vehicles, but they’ll use drones to move the product off the truck and onto the customer’s doorstep. Delivery drivers will see their jobs made easier by drones, but their jobs won’t be in jeopardy.

However, if this road-and-drone technique becomes mainstream, Amazon will be in charge. It’s no secret that its business model includes much more than just an online marketplace. The company already own patents on several products and platforms that it licenses out to companies and individuals.

Amazon Web Services is just one example. This cloud computing service is Amazon’s top moneymaker, bringing in around $10 billion a year. It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to predict that a drone delivery system is its next big move. If that’s the case, Amazon will license out its drone services to companies that use delivery trucks, infiltrating the existing infrastructure and generating incredible revenue.

In terms of technology, the future is already here. Drones have shown that they’re capable of delivering pizzas and sunscreen under favorable conditions. But a complete drone-led revolution of delivery services will require some unfathomable changes to take off.

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