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Keeping up with the drones

Drones flying through the skies and robots roaming the streets. Are these supply chain innovations here to stay?

About this article

With all of the drone-related news flying around in recent months, Online Content Co-ordinator (Supply Chain) Suzannah Murphy takes some time to see what all the fuss is about in the race to eliminate last-mile logistics costs.

It seems we can’t talk about supply chains without first mentioning Amazon these days, so it’s no great surprise that it’s putting its two pennies’ worth into the drone-debate with its Prime Air fleet.

Delivery in 30 minutes

Amazon’s Prime Air service will deliver packages up to 2.26kg via – you guessed it – drones. If successful, deliveries could be made 30 minutes after an order is placed and can carry around 86% of the parcels currently delivered by Amazon via conventional means.

Source: Amazon

An uphill battle?

While it all sounds good on paper, there are a number of obstacles to get past (or fly around). In the US, for example, the online retailer has run into difficulties testing drones, as the degree to which the technology can be tested is dependent on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s strict policies regarding flying drones for commercial use.

However. here in the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has just granted Amazon permission to test three innovations:

  • Beyond line of sight journeys in rural and suburban areas
  • Testing that drones can identify and avoid obstacles
  • Flights where one person oversees multiple drone journeys simultaneously

Just last week, we heard that Amazon has taken another step in developing its new delivery system, having obtained a patent for drones landing on docking stations located on tall structures, such as lampposts or church steeples.

Not only would the stations be able to unload parcels and recharge, they’d also be able to reroute drones in the case of bad weather. Of course, this patent may never come to fruition, but it’s an interesting possibility and shows us – once again – that Amazon really does think outside the box when it comes to its supply chain.

Improving the Parcelcopter

Meanwhile in the logistics world, it’s no great surprise that DHL’s been looking into improving its version of the technology – the ‘Parcelcopter’. Its first generation model, launched in 2013, could fly 1km at 43km/h and carry up to 1.2kg. It was controlled manually and didn’t have any altitude difference capabilities. Fast forward to the first quarter of this year, and DHL’s (fully autonomous) third generation version can carry twice as much as the first generation model, has a range of over 8km at 70km/h and can cope with even the varying altitudes of mountainous regions.

Source: DHL

Reducing last-mile costs

It’s an impressive amount of progress for DHL: not only is the drone fully autonomous, it’s able to fly over terrain that would be challenging for a human to cover. This means that DHL can significantly reduce last-mile delivery costs, which are especially high in rural areas. With its ability to automatically load and unload packages, it would be great to see the Parcelcopter trialled in urban areas next. 

Perhaps in environments where benefits outweigh the risks is where drones will find their niche – at least in the short term.

First US grocery delivery

There’s one retailer that’s managed to do what no others have yet achieved: a week ago, Seven & I Holdings made the first ever drone delivery to a customer’s home in the US Operated by Flirtey, a leading independent drone delivery company, it autonomously transported hot and cold food from a local 7-Eleven store to a garden in minutes.

It’s an historic moment – not only for Seven & I Holdings and Flirtey – but for what has been described as the ‘ultimate convenience’ delivery system for customers.

Source: Seven & I Holdings

The two companies now plan to expand the drone delivery tests, continuing to work closely together to transport immediate consumables from store to home: a first for the industry.

More than just drones

It’s not all about the drones in the race for last-mile optimisation, though.

Starship Technologies have been testing their self-driving robots in Greenwich, London.

Like Amazon’s Prime Air, DHL’s Parcelcopter and Firtey’s drones, these robots are autonomous, but they don’t fly; they use the pavements as pedestrians do, traveling at fairly low speeds, holding a couple of shopping bags’ worth of weight and have a range of just over 3km.

Source: Starship Technologies

Starship says that its entire delivery platform is both energy and cost efficient, and aims to make the last-mile deliveries by robot completely free.

This is great news for small businesses trying to move into e-commerce, where home delivery costs are currently very high.

Starship Technologies is speaking at our Supply Chain Summit in November so don’t forget to book your place!

Innovation and exploration

It’s clear, then, that the threat of rising last-mile delivery costs has led to a significant level of innovation and exploration. It’s unlikely that every innovation out there will take off, but 10 years ago, who would have thought we’d be ordering goods online for delivery within an hour? Having said that though, that might not be fast enough, and it’s likely that the consumer thirst for faster, cheaper deliveries will continue to pile costs into logistics, but also present opportunities to win for those that recognise and respond in the right way.

So what’s next for the industry? We’re not sure – but are looking forward to finding out.

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