Shopping is rarely out of the headlines at this time of year, and across the UK we’re overwhelmingly doing it online.
Vast fleets of trucks, vans, motorbikes and bicycles will snake up and down the country delivering millions of parcels in the run up to Christmas.
In just a few years, they will be joined by another delivery method: drones. At least that’s what companies like Google and Amazon would have you believe.
Google’s drone delivery service, dubbed ‘Project Wing’, is set to launch ‘sometime in 2017’, according to recent reports. Amazon announced plans to launch a ‘Prime Air’ delivery drone service by 2015 two years ago – but has only unveiled a prototype so far (pictured).
Alibaba is also tinkering with the technology, as are a handful of startups like Matternet, Fleye, Skycatch and others.
But drones are not some distant far-away prospect. They are already in use to let farmers monitor their land, for aerial photography, for property surveys, disaster relief – and of course, for military purposes. So drones can be incredibly useful for some specific needs.
However drones aren’t being used to deliver parcels anywhere yet. And it’s unlikely they will for some time.
Firstly there are the much-discussed regulatory issues. The idea of drone delivery has already taken a blow in China, which is reportedly due to release a new set of draft regulations this month to restrict craft and cargo weight and outright ban drone delivery in busy urban areas.
Although the US Federal Aviation Authority is allowing firms to do research on drone delivery, its rules state unmanned aircraft must remain within ‘visual line-of-sight’. Its current regulatory ‘roadmap’ doesn’t provide any options for drones to be certified until 2020 – at the very earliest. Experts say it’s more likely to be at least 2025.
The European Commission has also said it will set ‘tough new standards’ for the use of civilian drones, with proposed legislation due to be released in the coming weeks.
These are just a few examples of the sorts of regulations that drone delivery firms could come up against. The rules could change. But the burden is firmly on companies to prove drones delivery could be safe first.
Secondly, there are technical issues that need to be addressed, as would-be drone delivery firms themselves admit.
“There remain numerous reasons why drones are not a feasible delivery technology at this time,” UPS, which is conducting research into drones, said earlier this year.
Battery life, weather, unreliable location data, aggressive birds and the risk of packages being intercepted by thieves or shot down (admittedly more likely in the US) have all been cited as hurdles to overcome.
“Having drones fly over densely populated areas requires sophisticated technology to ensure the drone doesn't fly into someone or something, has awareness of other aircrafts, is trackable by air traffic control, has failsafe mechanics, and that the legal and insurance environment allows pilotless machines in the airspace,” says drone firm Fleye’s cofounder Laurent Eschenauer.
“We're getting there, but deliveries via drones definitely won't be happening in the short term,” he adds.
Thirdly, there is the obvious but less-acknowledged problem of what sort of uses drone delivery would be viable for, and how they would actually drop packages off in practice.
Companies like Amazon say drones could help solve the problem of the ‘last mile’ – the final leg of the supply chain – which can be frustrating for customers, inefficient and expensive.
While it may be cheaper to get an unmanned drone to deliver goods versus, say, hiring someone to drive a van or motorbike to drop them off, it is far more complicated than it looks, especially in cities.
Customers often need delivery drivers to drop goods off in a ‘safe place’ while they are at work. In a big city most people live in flats (often without a concierge). How would a drone deliver in those circumstances?
Even in non-urban areas, it’s not clear how the packages could physically get to people’s houses (lowered on a line? Dropped from a low height?) or indeed if location data would be accurate enough to ensure they would. Just a few feet off could be the difference between someone’s front door and their swimming pool.
Some have suggested drones could deliver to storage lockers with codes to let customers access them.
But if drone delivery would require more work for the customer than someone just leaving their goods outside their front door or in their foyer, why would people opt to receive their shopping that way?
There is also a hidden cost as companies would have to relocate their delivery hubs from cheaper out-of-town locations to more expensive city-centre areas if their drones are to reach customers within 30 minutes, as some of them have promised.
“Realistically with rising rents and increasing complication of airspace regulation drones may become more trouble than they’re worth,” said Tim Davies, head of EMEA industrial and logistics at US real estate giant Colliers International.
“Retailers may instead be looking to better utilise existing modes, such as London’s increasing network of Uber taxies or in-store collection,” according to Paul Souber, head of Colliers’ Central London Retail Agency.
These are just a few of the barriers that will need to be overcome before companies can even think about deploying drones to deliver our shopping.
It’s not to say it won’t ever happen – it’s just an awful lot more difficult, complex and far-away prospect than Amazon or Google would have you believe.
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