Sunday, December 18, 2016

Here come the drones!

Amazon Prime Air announced this week that they successfully delivered a package to a customer in the UK.

This is exciting news for the package delivery industry.  Drones have already made a mark in other industries like agriculture, construction, oil and gas.  They are very efficient in inspecting power lines or oil and gas lines and even oil tanks.  Those are niche usecases where a drone is perfectly suited. Delivery of goods is one area where lots of companies are trying to make headway.  Drones have been used to deliver medicine, blood, etc.  Healthcare can benefit from drones immensely when it comes to delivering care packages to remote areas.

Possibilities are endless with drones due to their VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) capability as well as stability.  Equipped with a HD camera and a GPS, drones are basically robots on a mission.

Some think that drones are going to replace UPS/Fedex, but that is not going to happen.  Drone delivery is one of the delivery channels for a specific niche. It will never become mainstream and replace USPS or UPS or Fedex, due to its limitations.  Payload is one of the key limitations followed closely by range.

Payload is a limitation that will continue to keep drones to their niche.  But, range limitation can be overcome by several means.

Due to the limited range, drones can only deliver within a small radius from the distribution center (DC).  One way to solve this is by having a mobile DC that moves the products close to the delivery site and uses drones to dispatch the goods.  Imagine a small truck driving into a neighborhood, parking itself and dispatching as many as a dozen drones to deliver a dozen packages in one shot.  The drones will fly line of sight, thus reducing the distance to the target and the time for delivery.  Once the delivery is complete, the drones return back to the truck (mobile DC) and get recharged while the truck moves to another location.  The traveling salesman problem is simplified by a hub and spoke design for the last mile (the truck still needs to solve the TSP).  The hub being the mobile DC and drones making up the spokes.  Large number of deliveries (albeit, small) can quickly be achieved this way.

The next stage of this mobile DC would be larger drones replacing the trucks.  Imagine a large drone (mother ship) carrying the goods as well as smaller drones flying into a neighborhood and landing atop a 'perch'.  The perch could be a flat rooftop or a light pole.  People could rent their rooftops as perches for these mother ships.  The mother ship drone would land and dispatch individual smaller drones to the end point delivery.  Once the deliveries are complete, the drones will return back to the mother ship for recharging and their next assignment.

The beauty of this model is that the mother ships can recharge while waiting for the smaller drones to complete their delivery.  Imagine a rooftop drone perch with a power outlet.  If the perch is on a light pole, a power outlet can be created atop the pole.  This extends the range of the mother ship as well as the drones on board.  The only reason for the mother ship to return to a DC is to gather the next shipment of goods.  Remember, this DC that the mother ship returns to, could be a mobile DC itself!

The research that companies like Amazon are doing in the area of drone delivery can benefit other areas like healthcare, agriculture, power, oil & gas as well.