Drones and the future of logistics
Supposedly, drones are the next big thing. Especially after business giants Google and Amazon announced their plans to start using drones in last-kilometer logistics for small parcels during 2017.
Fans call for the death of traditional logistics in the next 10 years, and critics make dark jokes about a drone invasion, as in Audi's Hitchcockian, post-apocalyptic commercial from 2015.
Will thousands of drones darken the skies and drown out conversation with their incessant hum as they transport refrigerators and livestock overhead? Will a cow replace the piano as cartoonists' favorite choice of deadly falling objects?
Will container ships and trucks become historical relics? Will we really see autonomously driven drones carrying things for us and replacing human-controlled vehicles?
The imagination can go far but freight experts say they remain unconcerned in the short term. Here's why.
Drones won't be able to handle heavy loads or significant volumes anytime soon.
Drones' capabilities are growing every day, but even so they will not make a signficiant impact on global logistics for some time. The weights and volumes involved are simply too great.
Global logistics infrastructure handles more than 14 trillion EUR worth of goods every year. In Europe alone, over 2.2 billion tonne-kilometres (tkm) are shipped every year. And the US transportation system is the largest in the world, with nearly 16 billion tons of raw materials and finished goods transported every year.
Currently, the average 4th generation drone can carry up to 5kg of weight during a single flight of 10 minutes. (The longest flight time achievable by existing drones is about 30 minutes.) Maximum speeds are about 40 km/h.
Just imagine, if 1 drone carries 5 kg of cargo, in the USA you would need at least 3.2 trillion drones to to move all that cargo. Not to mention that after each 30 minutes the drones should be replaced buy others. And don't forget that most of the cargo units cannot be divided into pieces lighter than 5kg.
5kg lifting capacity is enough to bring a remote control to your couch from the room upstairs. Or to fly your trash to the dumpster. But it is definitely not enough to deliver your new BMW straight from the factory in Germany. So it is very unlikely that – even in 50 years – drones will replace traditional modes of freight transport.
Drones will play mainly a supporting role in global logistics.
Drones and traditional types of vehicles are likely to work together in the near future.
Earlier this year, express delivery provider UPS has successfully tested drones flying from a traditional van to make last-kilometer deliveries. In the future, this method may help ship packages to geographically isolated locations with less human effort and at lower costs, too.
For example, sending a drone from a package car to complete a difficult delivery can reduce the number of costly kilometers driven. Also, using electricity-powered drones would be more ecologically efficient than using gasoline-powered trucks.
Lately, Amazon acquired a patent for a giant, high-altitude airship that can deploy individual drones to deliver Amazon's goods to customers. Humans would still pilot the “mothership,” but the distribution of individual orders should consume less power than available alternatives. For example, the patent creates the hypothetical possibility of deploying the “mother of drones ” near a sports stadium to allow the immediate delivery of snacks during a game.
Over 10,602 commercial drones are registered in the USA already. Forecasts predict the sale of drones will triple from 600,000 this year to 2.7 million in 2020.
Until recently, commercial drone operations have been illegal in the US. But under the new rules, drone flights will be approved for agriculture, research and development, educational and academic use, inspections of powerlines, pipelines, antennas, and bridges, aiding rescue operations, aerial photography, and wildlife nesting area evaluation. There are plans to allow the flight of sub 25 kg drones flying at altitudes up to 122 meters and speeds up to 161 km per hour, but only within the direct sight of an operator and not over people.
The robotics revolution in transportation might push the traditional logistics industry to innovate faster. As the drone market drives innovation in positioning, navigation, and autonomous driving technology, traditional vehicles will likely adopt elements of it as well.
Ultimately, that means customers win. For example, robots and drones might reduce human resources requirements for loading and overloading cargo in sea ports or in warehouses. The result would be cost savings that can be passed on to customers.
AsstrA is a forward-thinking, innovative company. Be sure that when safety regulations for drone logistics are finalized, AsstrA will be one of the first providers offering the new robotic solutions to its clients.