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Mechanised deliveries: A future reality, not just a publicity stunt

Almost three years ago, Amazon announced plans to deliver packages by drone. Many in the tech industry, including myself, thought it was simply a publicity stunt, albeit a clever one. Since then, however, I have become convinced of the feasibility of drones in the air and robots on the ground taking over a sizeable chunk of the package delivery sector.

A recent scenario of late has cemented this for me: I learned about a region where a traditional van would take a few hours to navigate the final long and winding route up a mountain. They found an interesting solution in deploying a drone at the foot of the mountain to deliver the packages. One can easily see how this leads to cost savings for that courier company. How many more test cases must exist like this?

Are drones the future of delivery?

In terms of possible applications, it is not outrageous to think that within two to three years we will see many of the main retailers and smaller local shops using drones to deliver groceries, and that’s just the beginning. One of the more likely retailers to use drones will be local pharmacies, so people can place their repeat prescriptions online with local health clinics and have the prescription automatically forwarded to a pharmacy, which then uses drones to deliver medicine to local homes.

The potential benefits for business include cost savings, increase in customer reach, and speed of response. The price of fuel is not going to come down in the future, along with the other large costs associated with maintaining delivery fleets. As a result, the economics of the situation will push a lot more of this business to the skies.

Customers win too, as goods could be delivered in almost real time. We are already starting to see many local shops and post offices become drop off and collect centres for goods bought online, which was unthinkable just a few years ago. We should not underestimate how good drones, robots, communications, GPS, sensors and all that goes into creating an autonomous (or guided) machine have become. Over time, prices will drop, software will improve, and people will become more au fait with the technology, so it is really only a question of which machines win out in this new 'pony express'.

Amazon Prime Air

Amazon, of course, is the most high profile company seeking to usher in guidelines for autonomous drone deliveries. The company is putting a lot of resources into Amazon Prime Air, which is designed to safely get packages up to five pounds to customers in 30 minutes or less using drones. Flying under 400 feet and weighing less than 55 pounds, Prime Air vehicles take advantage of sophisticated 'sense and avoid' technology. But other major drone players, such as Google, Starship, Parrot, Cyphy Works, Skyward, and DJI are also contributing to the debate.

My personal favourite at this time is the Starship technologies delivery robot, which looks like a cooler box on wheels, and has serious business weight behind it in the form of Janus Friis, one of the creators of Skype. It is intended that these wheeled robots, with the ability to carry up to 20 pounds of stuff, will make deliveries from stores that cover neighbourhoods. Customers will benefit from being able to decide exactly when they receive their packages, using an app to program the drop-offs and unlock the robot once it arrives to take out their goods

Of course Google is not to be outdone. A recent patent suggests it has plans for self-flying drones which can mitigate all the uncertainties of landing, deliver packages, and taking off again. The patent indicates drones would 'shout out' to bystanders or the person waiting for the package to watch out until it has dropped off the cargo, with warning lights which change colour to let those on the ground know when it is safe to retrieve the package from underneath the hovering drone. Google has also been awarded a patent on self-driving home delivery trucks, each containing secure compartments that the customer can open with a pin number or credit card. Customers can request a delivery and get notifications by text when the truck is close to arrival and trucks use a combination of sensors such as radar, video cameras, and range-finding lasers to see the road and traffic around it.

Looking to the niche

Outside of regular deliveries, there are also niche delivery machines such as the Panasonic Hospi Type R Robots, which are designed to take over drudge work in hospitals by carrying around medicine, patients, and performing rote tasks like hair washing. It uses an array of cameras, WiFi, and pre-programmed maps to navigate inside buildings, and is capable of using elevators that have been kitted out with the correct hands-free components.

Given the correct inputs, there are many tasks that robots (or machines or driverless cars) can do much better than people. However, the keyword here is 'input'. In the case of driverless cars, they are using many sensors, cameras and radar to control those inputs but they have not yet been perfected.

A leading worry among the public, especially with regards to drone delivery, is safety. People are worried about drones falling from the skies, drone blades severing limbs both on the ground and hovering, and of course collisions with commercial aircrafts. However, Amazon among others are putting in place plans to address aspects of the safety issue in the sky by designating fly zones. For example, between 200 and 400 feet, there would be a transit zone, where drones could fly fairly quickly horizontally, and below 200 feet would be reserved for landing and taking off.

So far the vertical zoning is only a proposal, but it does demonstrate the possibilities of feasible safety regulations to further the viability of autonomous drones and vehicles. For now, however, there is no doubt that the IT giants are taking drone deliveries very seriously, and trying to gain first mover advantage in the 21st century package delivery market.

Kevin Curran, Senior Member of the IEEE