Editor's Comment

Editorial: Getting drones off the ground

I like drones. I own a drone. I very much think that they are the future here and now – and despite FAA and other governmental reservations about their use, it is almost inevitable that they will find a place in the very near future in the delivery and transportation world.

News this week that Amazon and UPS are both upping the ante with drones makes this all the more likely. Never one to shirk a challenge, Amazon is looking to get around the biggest regulatory hurdle stymieing drone deliveries – the fact that it is illegal to fly within 50m of any person or structure outside of the drone pilot’s line of sight in the UK – by flinging the packages from the drone 50m above the ground and letting them gently waft to the ground by parachute. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Meanwhile, UPS is looking to use drones to extend the reach of its rural delivery trucks without having to fork out on the diesel, with drones lurking in a roof compartment of its trucks like something out of Thunderbirds, only brown.

For me, the avid lover of the drone and with an aching desire to live in the future right now, this is all wonderful news. But what does it mean for the delivery industry?

UPS is adamant that its people will still be the public face of the company on the doorstep, but that drones can save it millions of dollars in fuel costs when delivering and this, I think, says it all. While Amazon will no doubt get drone deliveries off the ground, if you’ll pardon the pun, it is more tactical use of them to cover off those last few mile autonomous deliveries that will see them become really useful.

I don’t doubt that drones are going to become something everyday, from this wonderful quadcopter bike, right through to autonomous flying people carriers – and that while I zip around in these in my dotage, the sky will also be full of Amazon delivery drones and branded parachutes.

But that is years away. Today the UPS approach seems a much more likely way to put drones into action. And it meets a need. While UPS can save millions of dollars on those awkward, far-flung deliveries, they can also use drones – and let’s face it other autonomous vehicles – for rapidity.

Speed of delivery is increasingly going to be the battle ground for winning the carrier race. Millennials are coming of age and they are the most demanding customers you can have. They want it now and they want it where they are. Without drones and autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and IoT you aren’t going to be able to meet their demands.

Optimising the whole supply chain to integrate delivery into the new world of connected commerce is going to be key too, but frankly that isn’t half as sexy as drones… All this together shows, I think, that we are on the edge of a transportation and therefore delivery revolution. Amazon’s parachutes are amusing and probably won’t be the answer to any of its regulatory problems –  it is a stunt to get attention focussed on changing the rules for commercial use of drones – but UPS’s more practical bent shows that this is a serious technology and one that all carriers and shippers need to look at very seriously.

Liz Morrell is back next week