Drones have become synonymous with progress in today’s society. While just twenty years ago, they were more science fiction than fact, ordinary people now have access to fairly advanced drone technology with a few clicks of a button. Drones are most often associated with aerial photography and videography but have more intensive uses across several industries.
However, that notion may change in the coming years. With the announcement of Amazon Prime Air, Amazon’s drone package delivery service, questions started cropping up about the future of drone technology in our everyday lives.
Will drones start to deliver all of our packages? How will drones affect the job market? Will the skies soon be buzzing with delivery drones all the time?
While no one can know exactly what the future entails, experts and amateur enthusiasts alike predict drones playing a much more prominent role in our lives, maybe sooner than you think.
With the global pandemic driving up online retail dramatically in 2020, it’s not hard to imagine that shipping and logistics companies might invest more resources into drone delivery technology than in years past. In this article, we’ll outline what we believe innovations in drone technology will mean for the online retail industry and shipping and logistics as a whole.
What Are Drones?
Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), drones are flying, copter-like machines controlled by a person on the ground or by a computer system. Usually equipped for surveillance or transport, the military has also used drones for the last 20 years in military operations around the globe.
Since the 1960s and 70s, the United States Air Force had been tinkering with the technology for unmanned aerial vehicles. It wasn’t until advances in computing technology in the 80s and 90s that we saw UAVs used in the field, and even then, not to the extent we see today.
After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the CIA and Air Force began arming UAVs with missiles. Several branches of the military have used drones in covert and global law enforcement operations for years now.
Today, drones have become commercially available to the public. People use them for all sorts of things, but chiefly for aerial photography, worksite inspections, and even irrigation for large-scale farming operations, as well as just to have a little fun.
In the future, it could be that the term drones encompasses more than just UAVs. We may see the term expand to include larger ground-transport vehicles such as automated trucks and smart cars. However, for now, drones are strictly considered automated flying machines.
Why Do Companies Want to Use Drones for Online Retail Delivery?
Drones have the potential to benefit shipping and logistics companies in several ways, especially when it comes to delivering goods for online retailers.
First and foremost, drones can dramatically cut delivery times. Aerial drones don’t operate on roadways, which can be clogged with traffic, under construction, or obstructed by the weather. They can circumvent some of these traditional impediments delivery services face on a regular basis.
Second, drones can potentially reduce a shipping and logistics company’s overall labor costs. Employing delivery drivers and truck packers are some of the main labor expenses a company can have, and drones can replace many of these kinds of workers.
Drones also have the ability to drop packages where human delivery drivers cannot. For example, many people might feel uncomfortable letting a delivery person into their backyard for a more secure dropoff. People stealing packages off front doorsteps is a huge issue, and drones are a way to reduce the likelihood of this happening by entering a person’s property.
What Factors Are Pushing Shipping Companies to Adopt Drones?
Although reductions in cost and increases in efficiency are reasons enough to adopt new drone technology, there are other factors influencing companies to follow the trend.
The global shipping and logistics industry is facing shortages on several fronts. Logistics has faced a labor shortage for a number of years due to a relatively low unemployment rate in the U.S. and a distinct lack of skilled and semi-skilled workers at various levels of the supply chain.
Combine this with the global coronavirus pandemic and a huge increase in ecommerce sales as a result, and you have a giant labor void that something needs to fill. Drones are increasingly looking to be that something.
New data logging processes and faster computing often leave dated shipping methodologies in the dust. The global shipping industry’s original architects hadn’t designed their systems with these new innovations in mind.
Integrating drones into global supply chain management can help update existing systems and bring them into the modern age. Companies can use the computer systems that control drones to streamline data logging, resource management, and labor allocation.
With the climate crisis now reaching a critical stage, governments and companies are looking for ways to help. Traditional shipping techniques, cars, boats, and planes all rely on fossil fuels to run smoothly. Drones, on the other hand, can drastically reduce carbon emissions in almost every part of the shipping supply chain because they run on electricity and can supplement their charge with solar panels.
What Sort of Packages Would Drones Deliver?
As it is today, drone technology is unable to deliver packages to homes that weigh too much. The cost and safety concerns far outweigh the benefits they could reap.
However, Amazon has said in the past that a majority of their packages weigh under five pounds. When it comes to home delivery, chances are you aren’t doing to have a fridge delivered by air. For everything else, drones have become one of the most reasonable options for fast and cheap delivery.
As such, you can expect drones to deliver almost anything you can find on the internet. From kitchenware to stocking stuffers, a drone might buzz into your backyard to drop off your package within an hour.
What’s the Current Rate of Automation in the Online Retail Industry?
Companies have yet to implement the use of drones on a commercial scale for home goods delivery. Although the technology is there, governments and private organizations haven’t finalized the necessary planning and regulations.
However, companies are trying to speed up this process, making a push through lobbying and public awareness campaigns to increase acceptance of drones in our daily lives.
Once companies use drones to deliver online goods, it’s reasonable to predict that the general public will accept them within a few years’ time. Once companies have public acceptance and a regulatory framework in place, we will likely see drones take over the sky’s of our neighborhoods in the places that allow it.
Will Drones Replace Shipping Industry Jobs in the Future?
There’s little doubt that drones will end up replacing humans in some positions in the shipping and logistics industry in the future, maybe sooner than you might think. The reduction in labor costs and energy efficiency may be too good for shipping and logistics companies to pass up.
However, the rise of automation in shipping/delivery also opens up different opportunities for people to take advantage of. The use of drones won’t make humans a redundancy, but it will fundamentally change the relationship between people and logistics.
Among the top-growing job fields in shipping and logistics will be the manufacture and maintenance of drones and other autonomous machinery. Companies will need qualified individuals to care for their drones, repairing faulty hardware, performing routine checkups, and crafting and installing new software that regulates drones’ behavior.
Despite the inevitable increase in drones for delivery over the next few years, it is unlikely that drones will entirely replace traditional delivery jobs. Companies will likely charge a premium for quick drone delivery, and those unwilling to pay will probably have to rely on trucks and people to get the products where they need to go.
What Markets Will Drone Home Delivery Impact First?
Drones may be a unique technology in terms of where and when companies implement them first. While the technology often develops in first-world countries like the United States and Singapore, it’s usually tested and marketed primarily in developing countries.
A prime example of this is Ghana, where a San Francisco-based startup uses its drones to deliver medicines and vaccines to inaccessible rural areas in the region.
When it comes to online retail delivery, there is little doubt that developed countries will have first access to drone delivery technology. Amazon has already promised PrimeAir for years, and the burgeoning economy in China has created a huge demand for this type of service as well.
However, there’s no telling exactly where delivery drones will land first. It will all depend on the regulatory landscapes of various countries and how quickly the public adopts drone delivery as the new normal.
Challenges Facing Drone Delivery Services
Despite optimism from shipping and logistics companies for implementing drones in the next few years, the technology rollout still faces many challenges.
First and foremost, regulatory bodies like the FAA have strict air traffic control measures in place for drones. Overcoming legal hurdles like these prevent many drone manufacturers from drastically increasing their UAV tech production and distribution.
However, the FAA isn’t unjustified with its stringent requirements. Over the last decade, air traffic from cargo and commercial airplanes has increased dramatically. The high volume of planes with complex flight routes complicates how drones can navigate the sky, lowering possible altitudes and restricting certain flight patterns.
For drones and airplanes to coexist, companies and government agencies need to come up with comprehensive airspace-sharing plans to account for the complexities of flight paths. Often, companies have competing interests. As such, reaching any sort of agreement would entail compromises for any party involved, which may prolong the process.
The Way Forward
As you may have noticed, it’s almost inevitable that drones take over the supply chain of the shipping and logistics industry over the next couple of decades.
According to Markets and Markets, the drone logistics and transportation market is on course to reach USD 29.06 billion, a massive increase from the projected USD 11.20 billion in 2022. With a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of over 20%, drone delivery is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries.
It could be that before we see drones flying over our houses with your next home accessory in tow, shipping and logistics companies will first adopt large cargo transport drones. These can reduce overall costs earlier in the supply chain, helping to transport huge shipping containers onto cargo ships or air freighters.
The Verdict: An Improvement or a Disruption?
The question as to whether delivery drones will improve the shipping and logistics industry or just serve as a disruption is a misleading one. Experts have argued for years that the whole industry is ready for disruption for many of the reasons we’ve outlined earlier.
The fact of the matter is that disruption can be an improvement. While drones may turn the entire industry on its head and fundamentally change the way we approach home delivery, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Decreasing cost, increasing convenience, reducing delivery times, and modernizing logistics processes are incredibly beneficial to shipping companies.
Overall, the verdict is still out on how exactly delivery drones will impact our lives. While most of us take part in online shopping more and more frequently, it’s still uncertain whether people are entirely comfortable with the idea of drones constantly flying overhead. One thing is for certain, however. Drone delivery technology is here to stay.