Amazon was recently granted a patent titled “Aerial Vehicle Delivery Shroud” which describes an expandable delivery tube that would catch packages dropped by a drone, slow their descent, and minimize drone noise. Last-mile delivery has been a challenge for Amazon Air as well as other drone delivery players including Google, Airbus, Boeing, and Dominos Pizza with Flirtey drone delivery service. Regulators and consumers alike are concerned about safety, noise, and package damage in the last mile — but Amazon may have found a solution.
Last year, NewtonX used proprietary data to examine the cost and speed difference between drones, bicycles, and cars. This year, we revisited many of the same data sources, including regulators with the FAA and Transportation Department, former executives and engineers with Uber, Amazon, and Boeing, and delivery executives with Chipotle and Dominos, in order to perform a market analysis of the challenges and solutions in last-mile drone delivery. The insights in this article are derived from a larger report on drone delivery, that was built on data and insights derived from these NewtonX experts.
Why Last-Mile Delivery is Such a Challenge
Amazon has been wrestling with last-mile drone delivery since 2014, when it filed a patent for a package delivery drop mechanism that would allow drones to drop off packages without landing. The patent described a drone that would essentially place a package on the ground by releasing it from clamps without stopping its propellers. Landing is a problem for drones: not only can it be dangerous to land around dogs, children, and other interferences, but the airflow around the propeller and wings can also be disrupted by ground effect interference.
One year later, the company filed another patent for a fulfillment center for inbound and outbound drones. Shaped like a beehive, the facility would have multiple takeoff and landing points that would adhere to local zoning regulations, and could simplify last-mile delivery in densely populated cities.
Both patents try to address age-old inefficiencies in last-mile delivery: namely, traffic/routing problems and customer availability, e.g. parcel theft and customers not being home to receive packages. Additionally, last-mile delivery is typically expensive due to lower volumes — deploying an entire car/truck to deliver a low density of packages is inefficient. Drones solve this problem by carrying one to four packages per trip, and making the trips on the most direct route possible, using less fuel than a car/truck would and ostensibly requiring fewer human employees to manage them.
Delivery for drones, however, poses a larger problem than last mile. Delivering directly to residences poses numerous safety hazards — and it’s difficult to imagine citizens replacing their mailboxes with expandable delivery tubes just for Amazon packages. One Amazon patent describes charging and locker stations attached to lampposts and buildings, where drones could drop packages in addition to docking during a storm and recharging. The drone package would be transported from the docking station on a conveyor belt down to the ground level locker. However, using drones to fly to central drop-off points like these lockers (or, say, a local post office) would side-step the last mile problem, not solve it.
Do Drones Really Have a Place in Retail and Commerce?
Drone delivery is incredibly revolutionary in harsh environments and remote locations for medical delivery. Currently, the Dutch Department of Infrastructure is considering cargo drones for urgent transports of medication to the island of Schiermonnikoog. In Rwanda, a Silicon Valley drone company called Zipline has made more than 7,000 critical blood drops for transfusions in remote, rural clinics. Drones could be similarly effective for delivering urgent supplies after natural disasters — they’d be faster, more precise, and cheaper than rebuilding infrastructure to get large airplanes or vehicles en route.
In Rwanda, medical deliveries are fulfilled by the doctor/nurse requesting medicine or blood type via WhatsApp, text message, or an app, the drone traveling to the site, going down to an altitude of 20 feet, releasing its payload with a disposable parachute, and then returning to its base. The drone can complete a 50 mile delivery in 30 minutes. The problem with implementing an equivalent system in the U.S. is that the drone needs a landing space of about two parking spots — which is difficult to find in, for instance, New York City, where last-mile delivery can be most costly.
While Amazon, Uber, Boeing, Airbus, and other major players in the drone delivery space may solve surface problems with last-mile delivery, they create new problems with last few feet delivery. NewtonX experts defined drop off as one of the biggest challenges still facing drone delivery, and 30% of experts believed it is prohibitive to introducing the technology as is.