First, there was a run on toilet paper. Then, Amazon had trouble keeping up with deliveries, which forced it to prioritize essential items. Soon thereafter, grocery stores were inundated with virtual requests for goods. Catching up to the surging e-commerce demands created by the novel coronavirus became a full-time job both for entrenched retailers as well as new online startups.
One can’t help but wonder: Would things have gone more smoothly if retailers had delivery drones at their beck and call? Against the backdrop of a global pandemic that’s transforming economies worldwide, drones might finally be able to fulfill their promise of delivering goods to consumers quickly, safely and affordably.
“I think we can already foresee a tipping point,” said Maron Kristofersson, CEO of Aha, an Iceland-based e-commerce and delivery company that uses drones to complete some of its package deliveries.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being deployed en masse as part of an ever-growing list of useful and cutting-edge applications, including search and rescue, home security, inventory management and personal transportation. But Kristofersson sees deliveries as the key to industry growth. That’s why his company has been testing the capabilities of drones for last-mile deliveries in the harsh Icelandic weather.
Kristofferson is not alone. E-commerce and logistics juggernauts like Amazon and DHL also are exploring drone deliveries. Whether it’s in Scotland or Rwanda, companies are leveraging UAVs’ speed and affordability to rapidly transport medical supplies—including personal protective equipment for frontline health care workers during COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic is a defining moment for e-commerce companies like Aha and could have long-lasting impacts on the future of drones more broadly.
“As drones advance e-commerce, it will advance a tipping point for the drone industry,” Kristofersson said. “We had to go through a massive scale-up exercise during coronavirus … We ordered more drones and we are expecting four new drones in August.”
Even when drones are available, regulations and poor weather make it difficult to execute deliveries at scale. But Kristofersson believes such challenges are surmountable.
“Licensing and regulations have changed and are becoming much more positive towards drones as of recently with coronavirus, and that will definitely expedite the implementation of drones in last-mile deliveries,” he said. “People started realizing that this is actually something we should seriously look at.”
As for weather, Kristofersson admits that his company still has problems executing deliveries in the rain. If it can conquer the formidable Icelandic climate, however, it will be comparatively easy to deploy its drones in more forgiving weather environments.
“Once we have tested the edge cases properly here, then beyond Iceland it’s very interesting to talk about scaling up services,” Kristofersson said.
That’s in line with market estimates. Credit Suisse, for instance, predicts that the drone market will increase three-fold to $43.1 billion by 2024.
“Drones will play a massive role in what we call medium-range intercity transportation,” Kristofersson continued. “It will be extremely flexible both for humans and for parcels.”
Drones will be able to provide more than quick access to housewares and cosmetics. They also might change the way customers purchase food, influence how items are rented or borrowed, and expedite the transport of medical supplies to and from hospitals.
“I think it will bring the industry forward when more people realize how much the quality of life will improve when we get over the hill of getting this working properly,” predicted Kristofersson, who said data science and cloud computing are at the heart of his company’s innovations. “Whether it’s drone deliveries or other deliveries, a real-time, holistic system that takes care of everything that happens after you press the ‘buy’ button in an e-commerce transaction is what we are after. Everything from the time you press ‘buy’ until the customer has the product in hand is tracked. With hundreds of interconnected devices, it’s all running off the cloud. Anything that happens in the system is instantly reflected everywhere.”
These data points help refine future drone flights and improve the quality of service.
The one thing they don’t do is sway skeptics. For that, there’s COVID-19, which may prove to be an inflection point from which drones rise to bind industries, link cities and connect people. In the meantime, growing consumer reliance on e-commerce will continue to drive increased demand for drone deliveries around the globe, creating what one can only hope will be a positive future from a difficult chapter in world history.
Chase Guttman is a technology writer specializing in drones. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman.
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