Nope this isn’t the title of a new science-fiction film. The battle between drones and robots is real. It’s also a little more mundane than what you might anticipate. We won’t be talking about C3PO going toe-to-toe with a military drone (not sure he’d have much of a chance).
This blog is about a current trend that’s been developing within the delivery industry, and specifically last-mile delivery. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in using delivery drones and robots to improve the efficiency and speed of last-mile delivery. That said, because both methods want to achieve the same goal, they’re in direct competition with each other. A race to your doorstep, if you will.
We’re going to explore the pros and cons of using delivery drones and robots, talk about their use cases, and finally discuss their potential impact on the future of last-mile delivery.
Delivery drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs - The CoD fans are familiar with this) that are designed to transport packages, goods, or other items from one location to another. They are typically controlled remotely or autonomously and use a variety of sensors, cameras, and navigation systems to navigate and avoid obstacles during flight.
The concept of delivery drones began to gain traction in the commercial sector in the 2010s. In 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company was exploring the use of drones for last-mile delivery.
In 2016, Amazon conducted its first drone delivery in the UK. It gained attention as it had the potential to offer a faster, more efficient, and a more environmentally friendly delivery option compared to traditional methods (trucks, vans, scooters, etc).
Prime Air, as it is known, is still in development and testing 10 years down the road. Although they received approval by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2020 to operate its fleet, the rollout has been slow. Reasons are numbered from a global pandemic, to economic recession, and limited trial locations. Despite these challenges, Prime Air is still a green-lit project by Amazon.
Naturally, there are other major players in the delivery drone game:
- Alphabet: Google's parent company, Alphabet, is the parent company of Wing, a drone delivery company that is currently operating in Australia, Finland, and the US.
- UPS: UPS has been testing drone delivery services in the US since 2017, and in 2020, it received approval from the FAA to operate a drone airline.
- FedEx: In 2019, FedEx announced that it was developing its own drone delivery system, with plans to eventually integrate drones into its existing delivery network.
- DHL: DHL has been using drones for a variety of applications, including delivering medical supplies to remote areas and conducting aerial surveys of its facilities.
- Zipline: Zipline is a drone delivery company that specializes in delivering medical supplies and blood products to remote areas in Africa and other parts of the world.
In addition to these companies, there are a number of startups and smaller companies that are also developing and testing delivery drone technology.
The idea of delivery robots can be traced back to the early 2000s, when companies like iRobot (the Roomba guys) and Segway* began developing autonomous robots for a variety of applications.
It wasn't until the late 2010s that delivery robots began to gain traction in the commercial sector, with a number of companies beginning to test and deploy robots for last-mile delivery.
One of the earliest pioneers of delivery robots was the startup Starship Technologies, which was founded in 2014 by two Skype co-founders. Testing began in 2016, and has since been deployed in a number of cities around the world, including San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Milton Keynes, UK. Recently, Starship Technologies has partnered with last-mile and grocery delivery company Grubhub, to bring delivery robots to various university campuses across the United States.
Other major players in the delivery robot industry include:
- Amazon: In addition to Prime Air, Amazon has also been experimenting with delivery robots, including its Scout robot, which has been deployed in a number of cities in the US. In October 2022, Amazon confirmed that they'll be scaling back their real-world piloting of Scout. The decision to scale back was driven by the feedback they received during Scout's field tests.
- FedEx: In 2018, FedEx announced a partnership with the delivery robot company DEKA to develop a delivery robot called the FedEx SameDay Bot, which is designed to deliver small packages and goods in urban and suburban areas.
- Kiwibot: Kiwibot is a delivery robot startup that operates in a number of cities in the US, including San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle.
- Nuro: Nuro is a startup that develops autonomous vehicles, including delivery robots. In 2021, the company announced a partnership with CVS Pharmacy to test a delivery service using its robots.
- Refraction AI: Refraction AI is a delivery robot startup that operates in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is focused on providing delivery services in urban environments.
The delivery robot industry is still in its early stages. Many companies are still testing and refining their technology. It is evident that the focus and development of delivery robots (and drones for that matter) have been primarily in the US. However, as the technology continues to advance and regulatory frameworks become more established, the race to your doorstep will become very real.
*This has nothing to do with this blog, but I need to share this with you all. Segway Polo is a sport. I’m not joking, it exists. They have a world championship. It’s called the Woz Challenge Cup. Why? It’s named after Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, and Segway Polo player.
Delivery Drones & Robots Pros and Cons
Drones and Robots both have their advantages and disadvantages. To fully comprehend their strengths and weaknesses in comparison to one another, it is best to differentiate them.
Drones can cover long distances relatively quickly, which makes them ideal for delivering packages in the rural and remote areas. They avoid traffic congestion and other obstacles that would slow down the ground-based delivery methods.
On the environmental side of things, they are electric powered. That means they can use clean energy sources to operate and help reduce carbon emissions. Depending on the situation, they can be more cost-effective than traditional delivery methods for certain types of packages and routes.
Now the cons.
You won’t be seeing a drone deliver a Samsung smart tv any time soon (never say never though). Limited payload capacity means they can only delivery small packages and items.
Drones are also vulnerable to weather conditions. Wind and rain make it difficult and almost impossible to fly. They are also just noisy. That sounds like a nagging comment, but it could make them unpopular in the quieter communities who are trying to get away from the bustling sounds of the city.
Aerial collisions are another thing. Collisions occur with ground-based delivery methods. However, when drones collide with each other, it can lead to lost or damaged deliveries, as well as destroyed drones. No one wants the equivalent of Sir Isaac Newton and his apple except this time it's raining pieces of drone and a package bumps your head. I haven’t even mentioned the risk of collision with birds, which I think speaks for itself.
Robots are ideal for the short distance, last-mile deliveries in urban and suburban areas. They can operate in various weather conditions at any time of the day, making them highly flexible. For certain types of delivery they are cost efficient compared to human couriers. Lastly, they have a lower environmental impact than traditional methods of delivery.
Like delivery drones, robots also suffer from a limited payload capacity, which means they can only delivery smaller packages and items. They are vulnerable to possible theft and vandalism. They can struggle to navigate in complex environments with many obstacles that are unfamiliar to them (plenty of videos online for this). And like any ground-based delivery method there’s also concern about collisions with pedestrians and other vehicles.
One thing that delivery drones do better than delivery robots is cover long distances quickly. Because they can fly, delivery drones can cover large distances in a relatively short amount of time. That makes them ideal for delivering packages in remote or rural areas where ground-based delivery methods might be slower or less efficient.
In contrast, delivery robots are better suited for short distance, last-mile deliveries in urban or suburban environments. They can navigate through complex environments with many obstacles. In contrast, drones struggle in complex and dense urban environments.
Weather conditions aren’t a problem either, and they do have larger payloads. Delivery robots have a huge advantage over drones in the world of grocery delivery and restaurant delivery.
We know they both do delivery, so this is about specifically what they can deliver within their own capabilities.
Delivery drone use cases
Delivering medical supplies and emergency aid to remote or hard-to-reach areas. Delivery drones have been used to transport medical supplies, including vaccines and blood samples, to remote areas with limited access to medical facilities.
In fact, they started this before the 2020 global pandemic. Zipline began using drones to delivery medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in Ghana in 2019. When the global pandemic did happen, UPS and CVS used delivery drones to deliver prescription medication to residents of a retirement community in Florida, for example.
Postal delivery. Lighter payloads like mail and packages that fit in the mail box are ideal for delivery drones who need to get these payloads to rural and remote areas where traditional postal services are unavailable or are too slow and expensive.
Again in 2020, the United States Postal Service started a pilot program in Virginia to begin testing delivery drones for mail delivery.
Delivery robots use cases
Delivery robots are ideal for food and grocery deliveries from local restaurants and stores. Their larger payload allows them to deliver shopping bags and warm food to your door.
A major advantage over traditional delivery methods for this case is overcoming the challenge of densely populated areas where traffic and parking can be a challenge. The robot doesn’t need to worry about delivering a cold pizza because it doesn’t have to deal with congestion, construction, traffic lights, and limited parking spaces.
As mentioned, delivery robots have started to be used to conduct deliveries in university and corporate campuses where there are a large number of people and buildings to navigate. Starship Technologies and Grubhub have found relative success across various college campuses in the United States with robots. At the same time they are sparing a human courier with having to deal with severely hungover and hungry students.
These robots aren’t limited to the last-mile step in the delivery process either. Their attributes make them effective in other areas too. Since they work best in short distances, delivery robots can also have a roll in assisting with inventory management in warehouses and distribution centers.
Eventually they’ll become advanced enough to do the sorting and stacking of storage all by themselves. This will come in handy when the Earth is covered in trash and we’ll all have to leave these robots to clean it up because we’ve made it an inhabitable environment for organic life. It’ll take hundreds of years before we return, and the only reason we do return is because one of these robots hitches a ride on a spaceship because he’s in love with another robot- this is the plot of WALL-E.
The Future of Last-Mile Delivery
Both delivery drones and robots have the potential to revolutionize the last-mile delivery industry if applied to certain use cases. Drones are effective in reaching remote locations and can cover long distances with ease. Robots are effective in short distances and their highly flexible nature allows them to conduct deliveries when other methods cannot.
Despite the challenges they face, if applied effectively, drones and robots will become commonplace. They both offer faster, more efficient, and environmentally friendly delivery options.
So why are they in direct competition with each other? They are in competition to survive their respective trial periods. These projects take a lot of time and resources to become a reality.
Every bump on the road, and gust of wind in the air, can effect the way people perceive their functionality in the delivery industry. Bad tests, slow incremental improvements, lack of funding and other factors can pull the plug on certain projects like this within a day.
The future of last-mile delivery is bright as the competition between drones and robots, which will provide customers with even more convenient and affordable delivery options. The world can only wait and see what more is in store for this industry.
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