Drones: shipper’s delight or logistical fright?

Drones: shipper’s delight or logistical fright?

Picture this.

It’s 2020. You’ve just ordered a pair of VR glasses from Amazon, and guess what – it will be delivered by drone.

Sound good? There’s more. The drone lifted your new toy from the warehouse and dropped it into your garden in just one hour. And, it will alert your phone when it’s about to arrive. A dream of a customer experience.

Or is it?

What the drone (or drone pilot) doesn’t know is the problem. It doesn’t know about your garden of carefully assembled row of six-feet high sunflowers. It doesn’t know about the sprinklers that refresh your greenery every four hours. And it most certainly doesn’t know about your boisterous, fast-growing German Shepherd puppy.

So what, you say. One hour and two minutes later, your package has arrived by said drone – amazing.

Except Amazon’s robotic pride and joy has cut the heads off your flowers with its exposed propellers. In its descent it malfunctioned and theatrically crashed after an unexpected dose of H2O from the sprinklers.

And your poor Alsatian decided to pick a fight with this fallen aerodynamic scythe. Ouch.

That’s the dramatic, dystopian version of how the introduction of drones into logistics might be (literally) ground-breaking.

A shooting star… or a crashing missile?

There are the real versions of drone danger too. Drone – almost crashes into passenger jet; cuts off tip of photographer’s nose; gets attacked by hawks; injures Australian triathlete – all real headlines.

If you’re still skeptical about drone dangers: watch how a drone comes within inches of killing a world class skier in action on live TV below.

Scary stuff.

But let’s look at the positive side to a drone-filled life too.

The brightside of drone

The eCommerce giants of this world are desperate to get the drone experiment right – and before everyone else.

Business Insider’s drone industry report affirmed that eCommerce and package delivery would not be an early focus for the industry, but the likes of Amazon, Rakuten and DHL have other ideas.

Rakuten is actively trying to solve first world problems – helping you order more golf balls if you’re stranded without balls on the 9th hole.

The eCommerce mothership, Amazon, has none other than Jeremy Clarkson telling us how Amazon Prime Air drones are going to change your life.

Logistics giant DHL is looking to solve mountainous problems with its ‘parcelcopter’.

There are also a number of other players already actively delivering items by drone, including Google (see Wired’s active drones list).

Drones have also been used to provide aid to disaster regions, like during the Nepal earthquake in 2015, which demonstrated their huge potential to relieve humanitarian crises.

When it comes to everyday commerce and logistics, it all looks great on paper. But even the longest users of drones – the US Military – are experiencing an increasing number of crashes every year.

Delivering golf balls is one thing – but having hundreds of temperamental robots flying overhead in your neighborhood? No thanks.

Beyond the Amazon and Rakutens, let’s look at how drones could benefit online sellers.

Would drones benefit an online seller?

I could talk for hours more about the logistical problems, airspace regulations, costs and more, but it won’t really answer your question.

You’ve got orders. Orders of different shapes, sizes and weights, being shipped on ground, ocean or even air. So what problem will the drone solve? And what benefit will it give the seller? Is this purely a customer novelty or can it be a real problem solver for sellers?

Here are some theoretical benefits a drone could bring to an online seller, independent of Amazon or any marketplace.

The hypothetical benefits of a drone:

  • Faster, more direct delivery – fewer late shipments and lost packages.
  • Personalize the message to your customer with a talking drone (it exists!).
  • Deliver to those hard-to-reach areas, ie mountains, penthouses, a rural demesne etc.
  • Deliver to more than letter boxes – ie more tees to the 9th hole, or surfing equipment to a beach.
  • Get your brand seen in a new, cool, airborne way.

There is far more to consider than just costs, storage space and licenses to fly. A self-fulfilled seller with their own drone brings about a number of potential catastrophes too.

You own a drone? Wow! Things to avoid:

  • Alsatians
  • Children
  • Adults
  • Hedges
  • Trees
  • Birds
  • Overpasses
  • Vandals
  • Tornados, hurricanes, or even gale-force winds.

A spanner in the works

Whether you air on the side of drone or not, the problems are real.

The US government has approved over 500 unmanned aircraft operator requests to date. The industries with the most approvals include real estate, aerial surveying and agriculture. However, our friends eCommerce and logistics are nowhere in sight – and with good reason.

Delivering golf balls to an open green area is all gravy, but I don’t see how this is going to scale in the real world beyond emergency deliveries. I’d rather wait an extra day to get my new books than having flying experiments in the same vicinity as children, animals and civilization in general. The focus of these drone-obsessed companies should be on making on-the-ground deliveries more efficient, rather than cluttering up the sky with robots.

Without droning on about regulations – until the issues with the technology are ironed out, drones won’t shake up eCommerce in the way the big players hope it will. In fact, it may not even get off the ground. Sure, DHL can deliver across a mountain, but try navigating across a heavily populated city, or even a quiet suburb. Your drone may find itself on a costly collision course.

Everyone loves an experiment. And we all love to see things crash and burn. But would you want the latter to happen on a loyal customer’s property? You could end up paying for more than just a refund.

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Liam Keegan

Liam finds the golden nuggets in eCommerce so you don't have to. Business growth, customer support and feedback are just some of the things he eats for breakfast at XSellco.

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