Droning on… The future of drones for Supply Chains

Note: This article was originally published in 2019 for TALE (Transport and Logistical Efficiencies)

Is the future of logistics drone-based? Tom Stacey from Anglia Ruskin University’s Business and Law faculty looks at the argument and wonders if there is a better way.

As businesses look to more automation and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to drive towards efficiency and growth to meet the demands of a growing population, the idea that we can utilise small, cheap (compared to a delivery van) and intelligent delivery agents is appealing. The argument is that they remove the need to keep a fleet on the road and negate the need for a human operative. To massive global corporations, the idea of a drone to deliver your package or hot food is one that means they can replace a means of transport that has almost reached peak efficiency with one where advances can still be sought – after all, drones are getting smaller, more powerful, more accurate and more reliable all the time.

Over recent years and months there has been plenty publicised about the use of drones to transport everyday goods to consumers, even directly to their door (or more likely garden). Amazon, Dominos and UPS amongst others have been testing drone deliveries and as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are very much still a hyped and rapidly changing technology these are perhaps done as much for positive PR as anything else.

Compared to road transport (for that last step of delivery to the customer) means potentially less pollution from exhaust emissions and the avoidance of traffic congestion on route. A drone can take a direct “as the crow flies” route too and isn’t affected by hills or rivers in its path, the latest machines even have sensors to avoid obstacles and map the route in 3D noting where obstacles or collision risks occur to avoid them on the return journey.
The argument to use a drone for deliveries would seem quite strong then – less people in jobs that tend to be zero-hours contracts, less pollution, faster deliveries and less traffic on the roads, but is it as simple as that? Well possibly not, as the technology has some practical and fundamental drawbacks that may prevent it ever becoming mainstream, and also, it would seem there are some other options that are yet to be fully explored.

One of the biggest issues with small UAVs is their range, the average professional level drone can fly for around 30 minutes at a speed up to 30 mph. Assuming it needs to get back to base this gives a workable maximum range of around 7 miles. This is fine in an urban environment, but you could argue in a rural one, you’d be better off to walk! After all, it has always worked for postal services. Then there is safety – accidents can and do happen and current rules do not permit the use of UAVs within 50m of people not under the pilot’s control or three times that in built up areas – this is mostly so there is no risk it collides with a person which could cause an injury. Noise is a similar factor when close to people – these propeller driven machines make a particularly unpleasant buzzing, I’m not sure most people would not appreciate it in their back garden as a pizza descends for number 6.

Perhaps more limiting though are what we might call the payload for a UAV – 10 KG would be a workable maximum for a large craft – i.e. the kind you’d want to be able to land in most people’s gardens. This is fine to drop a new tablet computer off, but you’d struggle if you’d forgotten the sugar too. Then you have the (Great British) weather; nearly all small flying craft will struggle in wind to fly and land as well as they do in none and so you will likely only safely fly them in calm conditions, during the day. Compare this to a delivery van or rider and you find they are significantly more capable in all weathers. Snow? Forget it, rain? This is a challenge for most UAVs – consumer level craft can’t fly in the rain and even high end professional ones take more waterproofing which adds weight and complexity which impacts on range and size negatively.

So there are certainly challenges that are being faced by making this technology mainstream, however, people like Amazon are continuing to invest heavily in the technology with a site in Cambridge, UK, and even have a special agreement with the UK Civil Aviation Authority to test drones for consumer deliveries.

But what are the alternatives? If congestion, the weather and the technology are meaning the very end of the logistics journey is becoming the bottleneck or the challenge on the ground, what else could you do? Well, Elon Musk’s The Boring Company are investing in the US in going underground to move vehicles and people. Humans have been tunnelling for generations, and it might seem the perfect answer to moving goods around too. Whilst the cost of tunnels is high initially, they provide a safe, fast and efficient way to move things around, without the constraints of range, weather and capacity that vans and drones have. As Subway systems around the world show – with frequent enough stop off points, users will happily travel to the closest entrance/exit point and collect their package, and automated agents could even do this ‘last mile’ journey on your behalf. It might provide challenges around keeping your pizza hot, but then again so do 6 spinning propellers blowing air onto it!