The experiments to deliver parcels using drones have already been conducted for a few years. The road to success has been a bumpy ride, as some spectacular failures show. For example, a Russian postal drone during a test in 2018 crashed straight into a building wall after only a short flight (https://twitter.com/Reuters/status/981121633023705088). A drone worth 20,000 dollars was smashed to smithereens. At the same time, Wings, belonging to the giant Google, was able to boast of tens of thousands successful deliveries using drones during the tests conducted in 2017 and 2018.
Before these small, unmanned aerial vehicles take over a significant share of the courier service market, many technical and legal barriers are to be overcome. However, it is in a letter postage where the drones are forecast to be put into widespread use first.
A carrier pigeon with an electric motor
The analogy to pigeons illustrates well the potential possibilities and limitations of postal services with the use of drones. The main advantage of drone usage for delivery is their ability to reach places in difficult terrain – both urban (high buildings, traffic jams, dense urban housing), as well as over open water or marshy areas, or in the mountains or forests.
In 2017, the US giant UPS demonstrated a drone package delivery system. A traditional delivery truck delivered drones to the chosen place, and then kept launching them through the slide-open roof to take flight and drop off specific packages at specific addresses. After promising results in initial tests, the company wanted to show it off for media, which ended with a drone crashing.
Despite this, UPS has not stopped testing the use of drones, because the potential savings (reduction in labour costs, fuel consumption and the purchase and servicing costs of delivery vans) will offset R&D expenditure. You may find proof of this in the recent news of UPS using specialised drones to provide services to hospitals. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUOUt15DRbE)
Technological, legal and social barriers
The potential of drones is huge, however, their usage still faces many serious limitations:
- low weight carrying capacity – a few kilos or up to a maximum of a dozen or so kilos, is currently the limit of a drone’s capability; although there are prototype devices capable of carrying heavier loads, the cost of their production exclude their widespread commercial use;
- short flight range – resulting from a drone’s power supply problem: the best batteries allow for a flight lasting only up to 20-30 minutes, however, some drone prototypes, which are breaking records, can keep flying up to 2 hours – it’s promising, especially if we remember the size and the weight of the very first mobile phones as compared to nowadays;
- command and control problems – precise control of drones enabling their safe usage in a populated urban area is still a big problem to be effectively solved.
In addition to technological limitations, numerous legal problems of the usage of drones are to be overcome. They primarily concern issues related to air traffic safety, but also those related to the safe movement of drones in built-up areas, as any failure in a drone engine or command and control device can pose a serious threat to people’s lives and property.
Social norms are also an important barrier to drone usage. Widespread drone use requires people to be open to new technologies. After successful trials in Australia, Wings selected Finland, specifically Helsinki, for the next test phase as research indicated this place as the most favourable for postal innovation.
Experts agree that drones are the future of logistics despite many limitations faced in their commercial usage. And the future is coming sooner rather than later.