Drone Wars: UPS Looking Into Delivery Drones To Match Amazon Prime Air

By Steve Anderson December 03, 2013

The idea of the drone-based delivery system, as it turns out, is not limited to Domino's Pizza and the aspirations of Amazon. New reports are coming in suggesting that UPS is likewise interested in a system of remote-controlled drones for delivering smaller, lighter packages, and the idea of a “drone war” between not only parcel shippers but also among retailers wanting to bring in the delivery method may well be in the making for the not too distant future.

Of course, most companies are playing this close to the vest. Not only is the technology somewhat shaky as yet—mostly this is only viable for extremely small parcels weighing under five pounds or so, about the maximum carry limit of such a drone—it's also technically illegal, since the FAA's rules restrict the use of drones in commercial enterprises. UPS, meanwhile, may have several potential uses for drones in delivery operations, and not just to the recipient's door, either. Some have projected that drones could be more effectively used in warehouse operations, getting packages from, say, aircraft to trucks. That could shave some time off delivery, and potentially even drop some prices to customers. Even FedEx has been heard talking about getting drones involved in the operation, and there's no doubt that the idea certainly has some merit, even if there are some points that need to be addressed.

One of the biggest issues involved in a drone fleet—particularly in terms of last-mile delivery—is getting the packages somewhere safe. While that's not necessarily an issue in some places, particularly in rural settings where dropping off a package within 15 feet of a house is probably going to do the job, urban locations with much tighter population densities are a much more difficult proposition. In such settings, inches matter, and the ability to not only detect obstacles but also avoid same is a clear problem. Machine-to-machine (M2M) communications products can be helpful here, but will still have quite the job in spaces where inches count.

Moreover, there's the human cost to consider. More drone deliveries mean fewer humans needed for delivery—sure, no drone can ship a new chair, so the heavier stuff will still need human delivery, for now—and that means job losses. How many stores could stay open in the face of an online shopping venue that can not only offer a wider variety of goods but a level of immediacy that rivals any brick-and-mortar outlet? If restaurants take this position, what happens to the grocery store market; professionally prepared food is minutes away at any given time. We can't be in such a hurry to automate that we kill the job market in the process; who will buy the stuff that can be shipped by drone if everyone's out of a job?

Still, there's plenty of room here for exciting new developments. Restaurants can open up a delivery radius of huge proportions, gaining access to sparsely populated markets that ordinarily couldn't sample the fare without a long drive. Books, DVDs, video games and similar small items get a fast and easy delivery route. Couple this on to the concept of 3D printing and suddenly every house can be a factory with a unique product line to offer. While drone delivery poses some problems, it also poses possibilities, and that makes this one idea that's not likely to go away any time soon.

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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