Drone Delivery: what it is and how it works

Drone Delivery: What It Is and How It Works

Drone delivery has been causing a buzz in the freight industry for a number of years.

What is it exactly, how does it work, what are the pros and cons for your business, and is drone delivery available in Australia right now?

In this article, we take a look at this innovative freight option in more detail and uncover the benefits and challenges of drone delivery.

What is Drone Delivery?

Drone delivery is the process of delivering packages and parcels via air using drones. When a parcel is ready for collection, the sender books a drone, which arrives to pick-up the parcel, and delivers it directly to the receiver.

In some instances, parcels are attached to the drone by the sender. In others, parcels can
be left at a base station and a drone will collect it without the need for human intervention.

Drone delivery has huge potential to drastically change the way we manage both last-mile and business-to-consumer freight.

Is Drone Delivery already happening?

Amazon, Walmart, and Alphabet (Google) all have drone delivery programs that are being trialed both in the US and here in Australia, where Alphabet has made hundreds of thousands of drone deliveries within the town of Logan, Queensland.

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has approved two drone delivery service providers, for deliveries to designated suburbs in the ACT and Queensland.

One provider is approved for the delivery of medical supplies within a 60km radius of a base station. The other is approved for delivery of on-demand supplies to customers within a 10km radius of a base station, which includes things like food, drinks, over-the-counter medication, hardware items, or recreational supplies.

While it’s available in a handful of cities though, it’s still not mainstream.

How does a Drone Delivery work?

At the moment, drone delivery is primarily being trialed for business-to-consumer deliveries.

When an order is placed, or a pick-up is booked, software will assign a drone to collect the consignment from the pick-up location. Once it’s collected the parcel, it will head to the sky, and make its way to the delivery location.

When it arrives, the drone scans the area to make sure it’s safe to drop the parcel, and will automatically lower the consignment to the ground in the designated delivery area via a tether.

In some cases, it needs a human to attach the freight to it, but it doesn’t require any human intervention to leave the package at its destination.

While drones are unmanned aircraft, trained drone pilots oversee the whole process.

Pros and Cons of Delivery Drones

As with all methods of freight, drone delivery has both pros and cons.

Aside from the fact that it’s currently not a mainstream freight option, here’s what the Freight People team sees as the pros and cons of drone delivery in the future.

Faster Delivery Times

Drone delivery offers a significant reduction in delivery times, particularly when it comes to regional and urgent deliveries.

For example, if you’ve got a regional or rural mining operation, and a part needs to be flown in to repair a piece of equipment, drone delivery would be able to do that way more efficiently than trying to access the location by road.

Drone delivery is also useful in a medical context. If a particular medical supply, or equipment part was urgently required at a hospital, a drone could get it there more quickly, and deliver it to the roof (where many hospitals are already set up to have helicopters land).

Improved customer experience

In the business-to-consumer space, there is increasing demand for as soon as possible and same-day delivery on many items from coffee and groceries, to shoes and clothing.

Drone delivery will make it possible for businesses to provide this type of instant delivery experience to their customers.

Environmentally Positive

Drone delivery will take cars off the road by delivering items that would otherwise have been delivered by courier.

Fewer cars means less carbon. Drones are a much more carbon-neutral and environmentally positive delivery solution.

Cost effective

Because drone fleets will be directly connected to freight management software, they’ll be able to pick-up and deliver packages via the fastest, most convenient route.

Combined with lower running costs due to reduced need for human involvement in the delivery process, there will be many occasions where drone delivery will be a far cheaper option than car or truck-based freight.

Cons

Weight restrictions

Depending on flight paths and the population of certain areas, combined with the fact that the aircraft themselves are small, drone delivery will come with weight restrictions.

For the time being at least, they’re only going to be able to carry smaller items under 5kg.

Impact on Employment

Drone delivery will remove the need for fleets of vehicles on the road. And this will remove the need for people to drive them.

Like with any technological advancement, drone delivery is likely to have a negative impact on freight industry employment – at least in the short term.

Location restrictions

At the moment, drones are only approved to carry packages in certain locations.

Drone delivery will be a fairly regulated industry, and there’s no indication at this time when we might see it become more available as a freight option in built-up, urban areas.

Distance limits

Finally, there’s the limitation of distance.

Drones are powered by electricity and need to recharge. This means that for the moment, they can only go a certain distance before they need to plug back in, which means they’ll only be useful for certain types of freight.

The Future of Drone Delivery

While it’s not yet prevalent across Australia, some recent reports suggest we could see distribution powerhouses like Amazon and Walmart ramp up their drone delivery rollout in 2024.

What this looks like will depend on how aviation safety authorities across the globe choose to legislate and manage drones within airspace.

Trials for drone delivery have so far taken place in isolation. Expanding the commercial use of drones raises lots of questions about safety and governance. So, while the technology might be there, the regulation that will get it up and running is a slow process (especially here in Australia).

Key Takeaways

Drone delivery has enormous potential to improve the B2C customer experience, reduce the impact of freight on the planet, increase the speed with which things can be delivered (particularly in regional and rural areas), and will deliver a cost-efficient freight solution for smaller consignments.

What remains to be seen is how long it will take for the technology to become widely available. But over time, we hope that as some of the challenges with drone delivery are overcome, it will become an accessible, and useful freight option for Australian businesses.