May 3, 2019

Are Drones and Delivery Robots the Future of Last-Mile Delivery?


Drones & Last-Mile Delivery 

Are Drones and Delivery Robots the Future of Last-Mile Delivery? – Depending on who you ask, the future is either already here or it’s right around the corner, which means that some of the biggest technological developments of late will start to impact most people’s daily lives. Naturally, drones, robots, and e-commerce are on an inevitable, irreversible collision course. And with the civilian drone (sometimes called quadcopter or unmanned aerial vehicle) market projected to hit $21.5 billion by 2021, you better believe that all that electronic buzzing in the air isn’t going away anytime soon.

Amazon is typically the first name that people think of when they hear the words “drone delivery”, but Google actually beat them to the punch in clearing a crucial regulatory hurdle. Google’s spinoff project known as Wing Aviation was recently approved as the first drone company to receive air carrier certification approval from the FAA for commercial package delivery flights. This means that Wing Aviation will be able to use drones specifically for delivery in the Blacksburg, VA area before the end of 2019, after undergoing extensive pre-certification testing in Australia and Southwest Virginia.

Meanwhile, Amazon is currently testing Prime Air drone service in the U.S., U.K., Austria, France, and Israel. Amazon completed its first successful test delivery via drone to a home in Cambridge, UK in December 2016 in less than half-an-hour, but they have yet to receive regulatory approval for retail deliveries. Clearing regulatory hurdles from the FAA and other governmental bodies have been the largest impediment to widespread retail delivery use of drones thus far, but once they attain legal compliance, drone delivery could become a major supplement to traditional vehicle-based deliveries. 

Land-based robot deliveries are also on the horizon, but they definitely won’t look like Asimo, or most people’s initial concept of robots, per se. Amazon is currently testing their delivery robot “Scout”, which looks more like an ice chest you’d find outside a football stadium than a technologically advanced autonomous package delivery bot. Scout is a rolling robotic vehicle that is loaded up with packages for delivery in a certain area and is designed to detect and avoid sidewalk hazards like pedestrians, pets, and vehicles. Currently, Scout is being tested on a limited scale in specific neighborhoods in Snohomish County, WA alongside a human companion to help Amazon recognize any challenges that the robot encounters along the way.  Let’s hope that everything goes more smoothly for Scout than it did for hitchBOT, the Canadian hitchhiking robot that was infamously destroyed in Philadelphia.

There are certainly some lingering questions about drones and robot deliveries that will have to be ironed out first, like, will buyers need to be home for these services to work? How will drones from one company communicate with ones from another to avoid collisions? What is preventing vandals or troublemaking kids from stealing or destroying these unmanned delivery vehicles? With technological leaps forward come unexpected challenges, and order fulfillment is no exception.


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