There has been a great deal of speculation about how parcel deliveries may take place in future years, much of it concerning the development of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles – ‘drones’ to you and me.

Whilst drones are now accessible to private individuals and have escaped any significant regulation to date, their potential as delivery vehicles has yet to be realised. Companies such as Amazon are apparently pouring funds into finding a way to harness drone technology so that they can exploit the speed and directness that air travel provides. Making a delivery with minimal human intervention and little or no traffic delay will surely lead to ultra-fast deliveries, according to the received wisdom.

Amazon claims to have made its first (Prime Air) delivery by drone late last year to an address in Cambridge. A bag of popcorn and an Amazon Fire stick arrived with the ‘client’ just 13 minutes after the order was placed, thereby satisfying a craving for carbs and Clarkson. Cynical observers have suggested that such demonstrations are driven more by publicity than practicality, but with other fulfillment companies devoting huge investment into drone technology, there is a sense that parcels may well arrive by air in years to come.

However, the hardware is probably the easiest part of the jigsaw to put in place. It is self-evident that if you are aiming to cut ‘click to drop’ times to, say, an hour, then the stock item must be within a commensurate time /distance from the consumer. i.e. if a drone’s range is 20 miles then your customers need to be within that radius from a warehouse or other stock holding facility. So, in order to serve the general population how many stock locations will there need to be? Overnight delivery companies have depots in all major towns and huge fulfillment warehouses are springing up around the country. But in an interesting development Amazon recently registered a patent for a beehive-like structure designed to be sited in urban areas to act as a ‘multi-level fulfillment centre’.

These buildings will allow hundreds of drones to deliver parcels within urban areas, monitored (by a human presumably) from an air traffic control-type centre. It’s a startling vision of the future and raises many more questions than it answers; how will these aircraft be regulated? Will there be so many drones in flight that we won’t be able to see the sky? How safe will they be? How secure will the parcels be and will they get delivered to the intended recipient? How will they make deliveries to multi-floor buildings?  Can the drones be hacked and re-directed? These are, of course, questions that will be answered as the technology develops but the traditional parcel courier looks secure, at least for the medium term. A good multi-drop courier in an urban area can make 140+ stops in a day both delivering and collecting parcels of various sizes, shapes and weights – a tricky act for any drone to follow just yet..!

Author: Chris Scothern

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