Delivery drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can deliver lightweight packages. Drones generally use 4-8 propellers and rechargeable batteries to provide thrust and attach packages underneath the body of the drone. Delivery drones are operated autonomously or remotely, with operators potentially overseeing multiple drones at once. In several examples across the world, drones are being used for delivering time-sensitive items, such as medicine, or deliveries that would be difficult with traditional vehicle-based services. Delivery drones have the potential to change last-mile delivery economics for smaller and lighter packages as they could replace many deliveries currently made by traditional delivery vehicles.
Until 2016, companies such as Amazon, Walmart, Google, and traditional carriers, such as UPS, were only able to test in countries outside of the United States due to an effective ban on commercial use in the US by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Amazon, for example, performed most of its early testing in the United Kingdom.
The FAA issued regulations in 2016 that limit but allow the use of commercial drones for deliveries. Current regulations require a licensed pilot keep the drone within sight, and the flight cannot be conducted from a moving vehicle. In addition, the weight of the drone and package must be under 55 pounds.
Despite FAA regulations, there are several companies testing drone delivery systems in the United States. Amazon is testing drones under its Prime Air brand and has stated that 86% of their packages weigh less than five pounds. UPS is testing drones that could launch from a traditional delivery vehicle, allowing drivers to deliver more packages and save on fuel costs. The UPS plan would be particularly effective in rural locations, where there is unlikely to be a distribution warehouse from which to launch drones.
DHL has used drones to deliver blood samples and medicine to remote islands, as well as packages to remote mountain towns in one-third the time compared to a ground delivery vehicle. In more recent tests, DHL has developed fully automated “Packstations” that allow customers to insert a package that is delivered via drone with no human intervention. Other companies have used drones to deliver blood samples from remote African villages to labs for quick testing while eliminating arduous journeys over poor road infrastructure.
Delivery drones could greatly reduce costs and time for last-mile deliveries. While typical UPS and FedEx ground delivery may cost upwards of $6 for delivery from a local distribution warehouse, drone delivery could be as cheap as five cents per mile with delivery in about thirty minutes.
The introduction of delivery drones has stimulated discussion of what the technology can accomplish in terms of reduced vehicle travel. We have outlined some potential benefits below:
Reduced roadway congestion due to less vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by delivery vehicles
Improved safety due to fewer at-grade rail crossings associated with less heavy traffic
Reduced greenhouse gas emissions as smaller and lighter packages are transported via drones rather than traditional delivery trucks
Greater route flexibility compared to traditional delivery vehicles, thus enabling drivers to avoid delivery stops at highly-congested locations.
Improved safety due to fewer conflicts between delivery vehicles and other travel modes
Reduced roadway and bridge maintenance costs due to less use by delivery vehicles
A technology like delivery drones will surely face a number of hurdles before being adopted for commercial use. We have outlined some of the potential limitations of the technology below:
Limited package weights will prevent heavier or larger items from being delivered via drone
Required collision avoidance systems and airspace control regulations may become needed as drone deliveries are more commonplace
Constrained flight times and ranges due to limited battery capacity
Irregular and/or unpredictable events, such as weather, wildlife or vandalism/sabotage, could bring down a drone during a delivery, which could potentially become a safety hazard for those on the ground and/or adversely impact their reliability
Designated drop-off locations may become difficult to determine in dense, urban areas
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