With the holiday season in full swing, the local package delivery trucks have become almost as prevalent as the December raindrops here in Seattle. The annual “gauntlet of package getting” has become somewhat of a holiday tradition around the world as the popularity of buying gifts online has continued increasing over the last decade. As one of these delivery trucks pulled up to my house recently, I began to wonder what sort of tech we might see come in and disrupt this section of society in the not-too-distant future.
After a few moments thought and a bit of research,the answer has become pretty clear: delivery by drones!
What is delivery by drone?
“Delivery by drone” is the idea that companies or individuals could load some cargo onto a drone, which would then fly through the air and carry the cargo to its destination. Drones could either be piloted remotely by an operator on the ground, or they could autonomously determine a safe path through the air and fly unassisted.
It’s a pretty straightforward concept if you have even a vague idea what a drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle) is.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, I’d suggest checking out this video released by Amazon recently, which does a good job of explaining how their “drone delivery” program would work.
Is drone delivery superior?
One of the first questions that will most likely come up when discussing the use of delivery drones is “are delivery drones really any better than what we’re using today?”
The answer is: “yes and no”.
Delivery drones will thrive in a setting where there’s a lightweight package that needs to go a relatively short distance in a very short amount of time. On the other hand, if you want to get your 50 lb package across the country and don’t necessarily care if it takes a few weeks — drone delivery probably wouldn’t be the best choice.
To be perfectly clear, this means that delivery by drone is probably not going to completely replace the local delivery trucks or cargo airplanes anytime soon — those delivery vehicles will continue to be crucial to the package delivery process.
However, drone delivery will start to become more prevalent and could reduce the need for delivery trucks or other non-drone delivery mechanisms — particularly in the “last leg” of the delivery.
To understand why drones might be considered to be superior for short-distance deliveries, consider these benefits:
- Less (or no) traffic to contend with means the package arrives faster
- Air travel allows a more direct path to the destination, which means the package arrives faster
- Light-weight battery-powered drones could reduce air pollution emitted during the package delivery
- Package delivery through the air means less traffic on the roadways
- Drones can deliver packages to hard-to-reach areas (mountain-side villages, towns separated by canyons or large bodies of water, etc.) far more easily than traditional package carriers
- Potentially more cost-effective than traditional delivery mechanisms — this may not be true yet, but could be realized as drone technologies improve.
And these are just a few of the potential benefits that we know of today — who knows what other benefits we’ll discover!
What risks come with drone deliveries?
It would be misleading to suggest that delivery-by-drone didn’t come with any potential downsides, since we all know that just about every new technology comes with some sort of potential negative consequence — and delivery drones are no different.
Perhaps the biggest concern is that an influx of new flying machines over our heads could lead to injuries (or worse) from falling drones. This fear isn’t unfounded, as there have already been a number of reported incidents of drones falling out of the sky and injuring people — including one incident in Batavia, Illinois and another happening pretty close to where I currently live in Seattle.
Now, I don’t know about you, but the idea of having to watch out for cars, pedestrians, AND rogue falling drones when I go outside is not something that I’m all that excited about. However, with a little foresight and some practical built-in safety mechanisms on the drones, I think this particular issue is something that we can, and will, solve.
Another concern that I’ve read is that drones could cause an abundant amount of “noise pollution”, making the outdoors unpleasant. Now, I believe that all potential concerns are worth considering, but this one really doesn’t seem like it will much of an issue for two reasons
(1) I’ve flown a few drones before and have found that they really aren’t that loud, especially if they’re 100 ft or more in the air. Of course, some of them could be loud, but they could be engineered to be more quite if it became an issue. Outright banning drones over the noise they produce instead of just mandating that they must produce fewer than x decibels seems like the sort of knee-jerk reactionary politics that could stifle innovation instead of fostering it.
(2) It is likely that the introduction of delivery drones would reduce the need for using vehicles to deliver packages across town, so drone delivery could actually reduce noise pollution, by creating a reduction in the number of cars or trucks on the roadways.
A third notable concern is that drone delivery may lead to job loss in the package delivery industries. As with every technological innovation, there is a real risk that some jobs may become obsolete or have reduced demand. In this case, it seems unlikely that any jobs will be completely eliminated any time in the near future, since drones can’t travel long distances or lift objects heavier than a few pounds. Of course, these are technical limitations which will likely be solved at some point, but for now at least, the idea of delivery workers being entirely replaced by drones is really not very realistic.
As strange as it may seem, drone deliveries are coming. In fact, for some areas of the world, drone deliveries are already happening!
Seriously! There’s a company called Matternet that’s been overseeing medical-supply deliveries-by-drone for the past few years in countries such as Switzerland, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. This isn’t just a pipe-dream or some “pie-in-the-sky” idea — drone delivery systems are already working their way into society.
Of course, delivering packages is just ONE use of drones — there are a variety other areas of society where drones are starting to make an appearance.
For example,the FAA has just recently approved the use of fertilizer-spreading drones on farms in the U.S., while other parts of the world are testing out drone mail delivery, “search and rescue” drones, “airplane safety inspection” drones, “prison-contraband-smuggling” drones, and even “rhino poacher catching” drones.
To be fair, there certainly are some non-trivial details that will need worked out still and some regulations to put into place before we allow countless drones to roam around above our heads, but the usefulness of the technology is simply undeniable. These little gizmo’s may be a holiday gift novelty for now, but rest assured they won’t stay that way for much longer.
Ready or not, the drone revolution is coming.To keep up with the latest innovations, subscribe to the Impact of Innovation blog's RSS feed or follow The Impact of Innovation on Twitter! Follow @Impact_of_Innov