Drone technology: an attractive prospect for futurists. However, concerns voiced by those in opposition leave distribution companies in a quandary. With a proportion developing potentially practical drone solutions in the supply chain, will our skies soon be scattered with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)? UAV technology is already being utilised (for example, in the military for surveillance), with further prototypes in development. Many believe that the notion of mass drone assisted delivery and collection is vital for the future of logistics. Apollo Cardiff asks whether the integration of advanced UAV technology in the field will become the norm.
The value of UAVs to deliver to remote locations is evident. Landscapes dominated by poor infrastructure and tough terrain have already reaped the rewards of drone technology. Hypothetically, developing communities in remote areas could connect with other villages through UAV networks which could eventually facilitate their inclusion in the wider economy. Suddenly, they are connected. Not only can vital goods be distributed, but information too. As a result, these communities are no longer isolated. They don’t stand alone. Rather, this potential future of logistics sees their communicative range broadened, overcoming many barriers that a lack of suitable infrastructure generates. It certainly wouldn’t be the formula for a complete revolution; however, a stronger economic positioning could be established, moving these communities towards a better supplied future in which they also no longer face communicative isolation.
Theoretically, this sounds like the ideal scenario. Nevertheless, a great number of people argue that it is just that. An idealised notion, which bypasses a long list of issues. As far as UAVs in use on a mass scale in logistics is concerned, these problems fit into two clear categories: Technology based risk and social anxiety.
Let’s first take the potential risks associated with the fundamental UAV technology. There are a number of associated risks with the use of these machines, especially when considering mass scale use in distribution. Many would argue that a choked urban environment could be assisted by drone solutions. The final leg of a delivery could be adopted by a UAV, thus alleviating both inner-city congestion as well as bearing environmental benefits. However, if our airspace is full of thousands of drone devices, how can we be sure of a 100% prevention rate regarding collisions? Airspace, particularly over cities, is already overcrowded. Potential faults in motion sensor technology could lead to drones crashing into each other, buildings, wildlife, and even citizens if such collisions render the drone hurtling towards the ground. Furthermore, colliding with an aircraft could result in hundreds of risked lives. In 2013, a pilot reported the sighting of a drone just 200 feet from his aircraft when making his final approach into JFK International Airport. This triggered further investigation as it could have brought the craft down. Of course, we can only speculate. Even at this point the failure of a UAV is relatively unlikely, but it still remains a real concern in the eyes of many. Human error is removed but the risks of relying on technology remain.
Social anxieties are evident. The word “drone” does seem to connote some sort of dystopia in which humankind is under constant surveillance. Perhaps this originates from the use of UAVs in the military as spy equipment. There are a great number who scrutinise the use of the camera and GPS technology on board. Supporters of advanced UAVs mark such opinion as a social paranoia which is preventing advancements in a potentially widely beneficial and revolutionary technology.
The logistics industry could be completely reshaped, with faster delivery times, even to the most remote locations that wouldn’t otherwise have the infrastructure to accept said goods. However, the anxiety regarding both their use to survey and potentially harm humankind must be treated seriously.
Of course, UAVs used outside of strict regulation have the potential to inflict much harm; however, correctly used by logistics providers, they have the prospect to reshape delivery networks for the better. Currently, regulations vary widely from country to country, firm legislation is predicted to be realised in the next few years, making adoption of the technology both easier for distribution companies and less of a public concern.
Other social apprehension comes from the cost of drone solutions. An estimate in 2013 cited the cost for Amazon, and other companies, to be around $50,000 per machine. However, MIT Technology Review made note of a drone delivery made to Haitian refugee camps. Here, life enabling products were distributed at a rate that was around five times cheaper than the normal truck delivery method. For logistics providers, the value of the goods on board clearly needs to be considered when calculating whether delivery by UAV is of benefit. Clearly, as aforementioned, in the instances of delivery to remote locations, or when providing precious life-saving goods, the advantages remain clear, perhaps regardless of extra costs.
Amazon’s UAV plans have by no means been a secret. Although grounded for the time being, much research into the future of logistics has led to the potentiality of a system by which consumers can make an online order which is delivered within 30 minutes. Amazon claim that this isn’t a future too far away, with CEO Jeff Bezos hinting at a 4-5 year waiting time in order to benefit their most loyal Prime customers. Fellow giant, Google, have recently revealed their UAV plans under the name of Project Wing. After two years of development, this project enables consumers to receive their goods in a matter of minutes. However, much like Amazon, it is years away from completion.
Despite much speculation, advanced UAV technology is racing towards realisation in the logistics field. With Amazon and Google as forerunners in their development, it seems feasible to envisage a future in which the supply chain is heavily influenced by drone solutions. Associated risks are of course prevalent, with much concentration needed on the regulative legislation in order to ensure such technology is born into a secure environment. It has been argued that the hesitation regarding these regulations exists due to mounting social anxiety. It could perhaps be said that social change is progressing at a slower rate than that of one of the technologies set to shape the future of logistics. How do you see the future of drones in distribution? Are UAVs set to disturb the supply chain as we know it? Let us know at Apollo Cardiff. Comment below or tweet us @ApolloCardiff to join the debate!
With thanks to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-10713898