Last mile delivery — The twilight drone
Will our UK skies soon be filled with delivery drones? That remains to be seen, and we will be watching the trials in the USA with keen interest.
Drone delivery parcel services are continuing to receive significant investment from some huge retailers, and Amazon recently announced that it will be launching its drone delivery service in Lockeford, California, later this year (subject to regulatory approval). You might think that you’ve heard this all before, and you would be right. So why hasn’t ‘Prime Air’ or some alternative, UK-based service been officially launched yet?
As far back as 2016, Amazon ran a drone delivery trial in Cambridge, which was reportedly successful. However, since then, Amazon’s UK workforce, employed to help pioneer Amazon’s global drone delivery efforts, has almost been dissolved, with hundreds reportedly losing their jobs. The team were engaged to analyse footage for various threats, such as man-made objects in the sky, humans and animals and 3D mapping. Without such footage analysis, a drone would not be able to differentiate between, say, a swimming pool and a roof or a back garden. Safety is a hot topic, and there are various issues to consider.
The benefits and the challenges
If drone delivery takes off in the UK, it could potentially play a pivotal role in saving our small businesses, which struggle to compete with services such as Amazon’s Prime same or next day delivery. Although nationwide drone delivery seems to be presenting companies with the most challenges, local deliveries from hubs appear to have more potential for success.
The challenges include regulatory issues, technical issues, and factors entirely outside of the control of those operating the drones. For a company to operate a fleet of ‘last mile’ commercial drones capable of carrying packages, the issues have yet to be overcome (last mile delivery is the very last step of the delivery process when a parcel is moved from a transportation hub to its final destination). Flights would need to be autonomous, at low levels (under 400 feet) and long distance. Potential collisions with hazards such as power lines, trees, and high-rise buildings are a very real possibility. In addition, drones would not be operating within their own airspace at under 400 feet. That airspace is also used by, for example, helicopters and military aircraft. There are also vehicles, people, and animals on the ground. The potential for catastrophe is not insignificant. The more technology and safety devices onboard, the heavier the drone becomes. The higher the weight category a drone fits into, the higher the safety requirements are, and generally the more complex the applicable regulatory scheme.
Larger companies are seemingly making progress in trying to overcome the obstacles, both practical and technological. Technology is being developed to allow for real-time visibility, and optimisation software being looked at to consider weather conditions, pilot availability and delivery priority. There is very little information available on the economic viability of the potential for drone delivery, especially in the UK, which could indicate that we are not yet quite where we need to be on the technology front.
The European Union Aviation Safety Authority states that an automatic drone requires a remote pilot to take control in unforeseen events for which the drone has not been programmed. So not only would an autonomous drone need to be programmed to avoid all manner of obstacles (known and unknown), but it would also need a pilot on standby to take over the flight if something goes wrong. Truly autonomous drone operations are probably still a while away. Consequently, the use of drones becomes an expensive project, accessible only by the companies with the deepest of pockets.
Where’s my package?
What about the parcel itself? When a consumer places an order and requests some form of express delivery, they maintain the same expectation that they will receive that package undamaged. Many drone companies aim to drop packages from several meters in the air or from even higher using parachutes. Amazon have been investigating how to make drones land outside people’s homes and deposit a package from barely above the ground, but again this type of technology is only available to those with the ability to fund it, and it presents its own regulatory problems. If your parcel is dropped in your pond, smashes on your driveway, or is stolen by a passer-by, who is going to be liable? Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the seller is responsible for making sure orders are delivered to the buyer at their address, or to an agreed alternative safe place. It will then be for the seller to liaise with their chosen drone delivery service provider to rectify any delivery issues or failures.
Insuring the risks
Drone operators will therefore need to ensure that they are adequately covered to protect against the unique risks they will face dealing with last mile delivery. Many insurance options for traditional delivery services remain the same whether they cover a solo courier driver or look after a fleet of vans, but insurers are going to have to give close consideration to the wording of policies for last mile delivery by unmanned aerial vehicles. When operating this type of courier service, drone operators will need to make sure they are covered for loss or damage to their cargo, loss or damage to the drone itself, and public liability insurance to protect the company and the general public, including covering legal fees and medical expenses if a person or animal is injured. Although the last mile is key to customer satisfaction, it can also be the costliest and most laborious part of the shipping process. It does not appear that drones are necessarily able to circumvent those issues.
Drone delivery is far better for the environment than traditional methods. Drones are energy efficient, and the more people that take advantage of drone delivery, the less weight trucks will be carrying. This will mean a smaller impact on our infrastructure. Whether our UK skies will soon be filled with delivery drones remains to be seen, and we will be watching the trials in the USA with keen interest.