Drone deliveries: A gimmick or viable option?

Amazon’s recently announced plans to start delivering books to customers using drones instead of more traditional methods sounds like something out of The Jetsons. But is this a sign of things to come or mere gimmick? By Walter Scremin.

Amazon’s recently announced plans to start delivering books to customers using drones instead of more traditional methods sounds like something out of The Jetsons. But is this a sign of things to come or mere gimmick? By Walter Scremin. 

Delivery transport’s biggest challenge is efficiently handling increased numbers of smaller parcel deliveries to more locations. Efficiency gains are likely to come from a variety of sources, such as improved customer communications.

The drone idea from massive online retailer Amazon is interesting, but as it currently stands on many levels its raises more questions than it answers.

The main question revolves around security. The ability to interact with the delivery recipient needs to be satisfactory, as do contingency plans for when the recipient is not available.

Accuracy is also paramount. Amazon argues that a drone could accurately drop a delivery into your back yard, but is that going to work in all cases? What happens to the item you’ve paid for if it instead misses your backyard and lands in yonder?

The other big question is whether the cost per delivery will be cheaper by drone versus road vehicles. A drone can carry a small load at a time. But to really work it will need to compete with a van or truck that can carry hundreds of items at a time. How many drones will it take to improve on one van’s efficiency over the course of a day?

Reliability will also be a big question. Drones may be vulnerable to weather. And vandalism could be an issue. Delivering by vehicle is not perfect, of course. Trucks can break down, have accidents, or get stuck in massive traffic jams. But to a generally acceptable level, they are reliable. And a drone will need to at least match that.

Finally, will the community ever embrace drones? In the US several municipalities are moving to ban drones from their skies. Australian law currently allows unmanned aircraft for commercial use, but this could be a sleeper issue. Ultimately, time will tell how viable – for both the seller and the customer – drone deliveries are, and whether or not SMEs consider them as a solution for their transport needs.

Walter Scremin is General Manager of Ontime Group.

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