Same-day delivery drones are coming, but do we need them?

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

Five years from now, our skies could be buzzing with delivery drones. Over in the US, 7-Eleven partnered with Flirtey to air-drop doughnuts and Slurpees to a family in Nevada. While in the UK, Amazon has announced a partnership with the Government to explore ways of making its Amazon Air parcelcopters a reality.

Both are tackling the challenge of same-day delivery, a service increasingly being offered by several major stores and fulfilled by premium-priced courier firms. Sainsbury’s recently revealed plans to trial same-day grocery runs to compete with Amazon Fresh in London. While Amazon’s own Prime Now service promises one- or two-hour delivery slots for Prime members (in selected post codes).

In Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire, an enterprising ice cream shop called Rock & Ices has reportedly used a DJI Inspire 1 Pro to air-lift ice cream cones to sunbathers on the beach. The ultimate in convenience? Or the ultimate in laziness?

Amazon Prime Air
Amazon’s goal is to use drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to its Prime customers.

Drone delivery might seem like a gimmick. But as Paul Misener, Amazon’s Vice President of Global Innovation Policy and Communications points out: “using small drones for the delivery of parcels will improve customer experience, create new jobs in a rapidly growing industry, and pioneer new sustainable delivery methods to meet future demand.”

The key word here is ‘sustainable’. Moving goods from a freight warehouse to a customer’s home is typically the least efficient part of the supply chain. Worse still, the reliance on cars and vans to deliver items adds to urban pollution and congestion. Missed deliveries (because the recipient is out), meanwhile, often see parcels left unattended (and vulnerable to theft) or returned to the warehouse (pending another delivery run).

Using a drone eliminates the congestion issue; flights could be automated (no costly pilots required); and, with planned 30-minute delivery times, you could order from Amazon Air and simply wait in to receive your parcel. That said, the range of the first commercial drones will undoubtedly be limited and the payloads they’ll carry will be small (up to 2.2Kg).

Starship Technologies same-day delivery
Starship Technologies hopes that its same-day delivery robots will be commonplace on our streets in the future.

If drones do get clearance from the CAA to fly in UK skies, other key problems remain. How will UAVs deliver to flats? What happens if they crash during a delivery mission? How annoying will the whine of their tiny propellers become over time?

It’s why aerial drones aren’t the only same-day robo-delivery solution. Autonomous six-wheeled delivery robots developed by Starship Technologies have already been trundling around the streets of North Greenwich. The technology is certainly clever. But like drones, it’s difficult to imagine how it can scale or what legislation will be required to make delivery robots legal.

Perhaps the solution to same-day shopping is simpler. Perhaps it’s self-driving electric vehicles shipping parcels to local click-and-collect stations. Or the revolution in urban delivery lies in experiments like Uber Rush — GPS-tracked, on demand transportation that’s cheaper and more efficient over that crucial ‘last-mile’ than a traditional courier.

Yes, same-day delivery services are coming, but do we need them? After all, we’ve been down this road before. During the dotcom boom in the late 1990s, Kozmo.com boldly promised free, one-hour delivery of videos, games, DVDs, music, magazines, books, even coffee. Not heard of them? Exactly.

Main image copyright: Shutterstock/gualtiero boffi

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