Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Drone logistics: “the next paradigm for transportation”

As the need for speed, to save costs and to reach remote locations increases, we could soon be turning to drones to solve our most complex logistics problems

Drone logistics: “the next paradigm for transportation”

It sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but if the technology keeps developing at the rate it has in the last 10 years, we could soon be relying on ‘flying robots’ to deliver our packages.

A drone — also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by computers, or under the remote control of a pilot on the ground.

The latest commercial models can carry lightweight packages such as medical supplies, books and food, straight to the waiting hands of the end-user. The goods are usually boxed and securely attached via straps, or ‘limbs’, under the drone’s rotors.

Food giant Domino’s Pizza recently performed a marketing stunt that demonstrates the possible future of pizza delivery.

While their use in global conflicts is certainly controversial, there are reasons why armies around the world are relying on drone technology to complete missions.

And many of the advantages of drones would benefit the supply chain:

A drone can stay aloft for many hours: a British model recently broke the world record by flying for more than 82 hours non-stop

We could see a complete transfer of labor with the use of drones. Currently workers in the EU must not drive for more than nine hours a day, and although this is extended to 11 hours in the US it’s is no match for the UAV. While logisticians are working in rotas to control the UAV from the ground, your drone is on its first shift, continuously working. This could significantly cut delivery times, and mean a transfer of skills across the supply chain network, as traditional drivers become ‘drone engineers’.

Drones are much cheaper than other aircraft

Logisticians are also likely to see significant savings with the use of drones, especially through reduced air shipping costs.

Drones are flown remotely and reduce safety and infrastructure issues

Delivering packages to remote, often under-developed regions can be tricky – both for driver safety and accessibility. Delivery by drone is quicker and simpler than relying on poor transportation infrastructure.

Businesses around the world are already recognizing the benefits and are starting to show interest in the use of drones:

Zookal, a textbook rental startup in Sydney, is said to be the first company to fully implement the system. It’s using UAVs to ferry textbooks to renters, claiming the technology has cut delivery times from up to three days to a matter of minutes, and reduced transport costs to a tenth of their normal prices.

A large parcel company in China is also reportedly testing drones to deliver to very remote areas. Using a built-in navigation system, staff can pre-set a delivery path and monitor drones’ movements during flight, even correcting their positions if necessary. The drone system is reported to be very precise with a maximum distance error of only two meters.

The 2015 Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Act will eventually allow all kinds of drones — including those for commercial use — into US airspace. Silicon Valley-based start-up Matternet is already looking to solve logistics problems in remote, underdeveloped areas by bypassing roads altogether with the use of UAVs. The company completed their first trials in September, testing the drones’ performance in different climates and is now looking into creating bigger models, with the capability of carrying heavier loads.

It’s clear that drone logistics is gaining momentum and interest across the globe. Although there are many questions still to be answered, with the possibility of reducing supply chain costs, delivery times and labor challenges, we can expect more and more companies to consider delivery by drone during the next few years. Watch this space.


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