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Viewpoint: Are last-mile drones really ready for takeoff in logistics?

Infrastructure and regulatory questions abound, leaving many to turn to AI-based ground routing

This commentary was written by Álvaro Echeverría, founder and CEO of SimpliRoute. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Modern Shipper or its affiliates.

Autonomous robots have been filling conversations about modernizing last-mile delivery, and most recently, drones have entered the space too. Wing is Alphabet.Inc’s drone delivery company, with a dedicated fleet to fulfill last-mile shipment for small packages in the United States, Finland, and Australia. Meanwhile, Amazon Prime customers in Lockeford, California, are due any day now to start receiving packages via drones.

But it’s not always clear skies ahead. Residents in Lockeford have threatened to shoot the technology, fearing its impact on employment and privacy in the community. And while Jeff Bezos boldly declared that last-mile drones would very soon be the norm for door-to-door delivery (nine years ago), drone use in logistics remains in its infancy, with plenty of friction to smooth out.

Part of the problem is that companies risk jumping to “sexy” modes of transport like drones to impress customers and showcase their innovation. The reality, though, is that time, cost, and efficiency are a greater priority for both recipients and businesses. Here’s why drones still aren’t ready for takeoff in the last mile.

The drone delivery dilemma

Safety has long been a concern around drone tech: between 2015 and 2020, more than 4,000 drone-related injuries were reported. Amazon has also had to delay its drone expansion plans after sources said that during testing there was one drone “that just blew apart when it hit the ground.” There’s additionally the possibility that malfunctioning drones could cause damage to people and properties below. Unlike cars, if there are technical difficulties in the sky, there’s no safe refuge to pull over and get help.

Another issue is that drones don’t always have a safe area to land, meaning they have to descend in crowded places or navigate obstacles that lower the chances of a smooth descent, without damaging the goods being delivered. Some companies have suggested parachuting items but that process is heavily dependent on weather conditions. Amazon proposed building landing pads into communal spaces, but didn’t specify who would pay for those, and how they would be accessible in densely populated, urban areas.

Then there’s the regulation hurdle. At the moment, standard UAV rules set height boundaries, prescribed geographical areas, and data collection for drone activity, however, other specifications can vary between states. As more businesses look to implement drone last-mile delivery then, they’ll have to take care to stay compliant or face lawsuits and have to scale back on the fleets and routes they’ve already invested in. Just a few years back, drone company SkyPan was fined $200,000 (originally proposed to be $1.9M) for conducting 65 illegal drone flights in congested airspace over Chicago and New York City.

Coming back down to earth with AI 

Drones are expensive, and purchasing a fleet and maintaining an operating system for it takes a large chunk out of companies’ budget. Back on the ground, there is more affordable tech that is just as sophisticated as drone capability and optimizes last-mile delivery for cars and trucks. In fact, companies can integrate free AI-powered software like Detrack, Route4Me, and Shipday. 

Artificial intelligence not only shows drivers the fastest routes, with the least traffic, and the best conditions, it can reduce the time spent in transit and coordinate multiple stops in the smallest number of journeys possible. By streamlining routes and learning from historical data, AI is more than equipped to ensure quick, accurate delivery. This efficiency is particularly important considering that people are buying more products than they did before the pandemic hit, and that the last mile needs to keep up with this demand. For example, SimpliRoute’s AI enabled Walmart to reduce delivery times by 30%, increase the performance of each shipment by 25%, and lower logistics costs by 34%.

Drones, on the other hand, have yet to prove that their price tag is worth their outcomes. They have limited battery power, so often can only make one long journey with a heavy item before having to recharge. Not to mention, a 2022 survey highlights that 39% of people fear drones won’t deliver items to the right address. 

A potential nosedive in (financial) sustainability

Widespread drone use would require building infrastructure from scratch for launch pads, landing pads, and secure software that supports autonomous flying vehicles. There’s also been talk of needing smart mailboxes to accommodate drone delivery, where recipients are alerted via their phone when a drone is approaching, and they remotely open the mailbox to allow the drone to deposit the goods.

But drones at this scale demand a big change in customer behavior and trust. Delivery is a personal process – people want to know that their order is protected, that it goes to the correct place, and that a human is involved to swiftly rectify any mishaps. Rather than trying to completely reinvent delivery with drones – which is expensive and high risk – the last mile can be improved with existing trends and tools.

AI solutions for road logistics can be easily accessed via drivers’ phones; no new roads need to be laid and the tech can work with what is already there. The result is a more sustainable and cost-effective approach to better last-mile delivery. And, in the ongoing economic uncertainty, being more sustainable can equate to savings. AI optimized routing means using less gas and fewer hours on the road, cutting a large portion of companies’ expenses. 

Innovation may be everywhere, but the last mile needs to stay grounded. By doubling down on ways to enhance existing infrastructure and processes, delivery can advance while still making smart decisions around finances. Businesses that get lost in the clouds with drones could experience a harsh bump back down to earth – especially with a recession looming on the horizon.

About the author

Álvaro Echeverría, is founder and CEO of SimpliRoute, a route optimization software helping companies reduce logistics costs and increase customer satisfaction.

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Álvaro Echeverría, contributor

Álvaro Echeverría is founder and CEO of SimpliRoute, a route optimization software helping companies reduce logistics costs and increase customer satisfaction.