Drone Deliveries: Will it Take Off!?

Drone Deliveries: Will it Take Off!?

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, UK supermarkets have made huge changes to the operation of their delivery services. As huge numbers of people limited the number of trips they made out of the house, supermarkets saw a surge in online ordering requiring a huge and rapid scaling of their delivery services. Consequently, the online shopping sector is set to grow 33% in 2020, reaching an estimated value of £16.8 billion.

Even as lockdown restrictions have eased, the dramatic change in shopping behaviour is still being seen, with the surge in online ordering expected to be a long-lasting trend. As part of its response, supermarket giant Tesco is now set to trial a drone delivery service beginning in Galway in October, which may help ease the pressures of increased online ordering and pave the way for the commercial use of drones. However, while drone deliveries have the potential to save time, money and reduce pollution, they are also noisy, weight-limited, and potentially unreliable. The debate is looked at in further detail below.

Drone deliveries - the detail

Delivery drones belong to the broader category of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) which have been used for a long time in industries such as filmmaking, agriculture, and the military. The trial will see a commercial use of these vehicles, with up to 4kg (9lb) of shopping dropped at customers’ homes within 30 minutes of ordering, initially focusing on a small number of grocery items. Originally, this will be run only from the Oranmore store in County Galway, Ireland, however if successful it is expected that the trial will be expanded. The drones will be supplied by Manna who already run medicine delivery trials in Moneygall, Ireland.

When was the first commercial drone delivery in the UK?

Drone deliveries are not brand new- in 2016, Amazon conducted its first commercial drone delivery in the UK, dropping a parcel just 13 minutes after ordering to a resident in Cambridge. As 86% of their packages weigh less than five pounds (2.3kg), it is likely that Amazon will continue to explore the possibilities open to them through using UAV’s with a hope to reshape the industry. Asda’s parent company Walmart has also announced drone delivery tests in the US, and the UK government has announced UAVs will deliver essential hospital supplies from the mainland to the Isle of Wight. Taking a step further, UPS is testing drones to launch from a traditional delivery vehicle, with numerous benefits including saving fuel costs and expanding accessibility in rural locations. It is therefore not surprising that a study by PwC identified the potential market value of drone powered solutions at over $127bn.

The move by Tesco comes at a time when shoppers’ grocery shopping habits are undergoing drastic and potentially permanent changes due to Covid-19. Dave Lewis, CEO of Tesco has said online sales almost doubled year-on-year since lockdown began. Other supermarkets have seen similar trends, with British people now spending 60% more on their food shop than before lockdown. However, responses to this greater demand has been different, with many supermarkets focusing on other green technologies. For example, Waitrose and John Lewis are to roll out electric delivery vans coming as part of the John Lewis Partnership aim to end the use of fossil fuels for its 4,800-vehicle fleet by 2030. While the use of drones for delivery will arguably have a positive environmental impact, it is debatable to what extent this will be possible in the grocery sector in comparison to the wider shipping industry.

How are drones being used in the medical world?

Drones are also being trialled in the medical world, with NHS Supplied carried to the Isle of Wight using the Windracers ULTRA UAV. As the UK’s largest unmanned aerial vehicle, it is able to deliver vital NHS supplies from Hampshire to the Isle of Wight in just 10 minutes, twice as fast as the journey by ferry. Meanwhile in Essex, an NHS drone is being used to courier Covid-19 samples, blood tests and personal protective equipment between Essex’s Broomfield hospital, Basildon hospital and the Pathology First laboratory in Basildon. If successful, it is hoped that drones can help address some of the challenges surrounding NHS supply chain logistics, including reducing waiting times for couriers and freeing up NHS staff.

What are the possible benefits of drone deliveries?

  • Reduced congestion on the road due to less delivery vehicles
  • Speedier delivery times, especially in congested areas
  • In turn, reduced greenhouse emissions and greater safety on roads from less traffic
  • Greater route flexibility and inclusivity. Rural areas or highly congested areas that would normally be avoided can now be accessed with ease
  • Low operating costs

What are the drawbacks?

  • Residents have complained, saying drones are noisy and intrusive
  • Limited weight compatibility means heavier items will still need to be delivered by vehicle
  • As this technology becomes more widely adopted, there may be a requirement for airspace control regulations and collision avoidance systems
  • Will be easily impacted by events such as weather which could be a safety hazard or cause delays
  • Technology usage is hugely reliant on consumer trust which may take a long time to build
  • Who will manage the sky, should drone deliveries become the new normal way of receiving goods?

Food for thought

The increasing demand for online grocery deliveries puts a greater strain on the roads and environment with a greater number of delivery vehicles out on the road as a result. There is no doubt that using drones could be a better solution environmentally; they are electric so are a greener option than diesel vehicles and if their use results in less delivery vehicles on the roads then they will reduce pollution resulting from congestion.

However, there is a question of how big of an impact drone delivery will have. Currently, the drones can only drop off small deliveries up to 4kg so they will not replace the big “weekly shop” orders. Furthermore, the average supermarket transaction has risen from £13.31 to £21.40 as the public limits the number of trips they are making due to Covid-19. Therefore, will the addition of drone deliveries simply replace shopping trips that otherwise would have been done by walking? Is this helpful when the government is trying to encourage active travel for small trips both to get the nation healthier and reduce CO2 emissions? If drones simply replace smaller trips that otherwise would have been taken on foot and don’t actually replace delivery trucks then this “innovative solution” will have no positive impacts environmentally, a move big companies such a Tesco need to be wary of.

Additionally, there must be an economic incentive for consumers to use drone deliveries instead of traditional delivery methods. Supermarkets such as the CO-OP now offer an on-demand grocery delivery service, in combination with Deliveroo. If the drone deliveries offer a cheaper alternative, then this may encourage consumers to try the new technology. Otherwise, it is likely that the public will stick with what they trust rather than engage in a service that is unfamiliar.

It will certainly be interesting to see the outcome of the Tesco trials, especially as reportedly only a quarter of UK adults supported the idea of drone deliveries when surveyed by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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