Pie in the sky: will drones ever deliver for online shoppers?

Will drones ever deliver for online shoppers

Innovation can be deceptive.

Over the course of history, there have been numerous technological developments which have been so instantly transformative that they are something of a lightning bolt, going from unknown to ubiquitous almost in the blink of an eye.

Yet many such inventions are the result of significant periods of research and development to turn a bright idea into something reliable, desirable and commercially viable.

The logistics industry has seen its fair share of innovation. In fact, the sector now is in some ways barely comparable to how it was just two decades ago.

Much of the impetus for that change has come from the e-commerce industry and the demands of consumers.

A premium on speed and convenience for returns as well as outbound shipments has seen home deliveries give way to ‘click and collect’ and Pick-up, Drop-off (PUDO) platforms.

The rapid uptake of drop2shop – which allowing consumers to receive or return goods bought from a host of major online brands via some of Ireland’s best known convenience stores – has fast become the country’s leading PUDO system, with the number of participating premises increasing by 50 per cent in the last year alone.

Despite that established success, efforts to find the next revolutionary methods continue.

Some, like parcel delivery drones, were first touted more than 10 years ago but have still not got off the ground, if you pardon the pun.

I was reminded of their failure so far to achieve lift-off by the decision of the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to stage a six-week consultation on whether to allow drones to operate “beyond the visual line of sight”.

At this stage, the CAA is only considering the potential to use drones for “inspections of railways, powerlines, and roads as well as critical medical deliveries”, and not the delivery of online purchases.

Such regulatory caution is, I believe, perfectly understandable and one reason why the passage of drones from drawing board to reality has itself been a terribly slow delivery.

Even if that regulatory hurdle is cleared, a number of studies have illustrated how a strong proportion of consumers are opposed to their use.

Regardless of that fact, some operators remain committed to the idea of drones being widely employed, suggesting that deliveries in under an hour may be available in one UK location by the end of this year.

Grand ambition is always checked by real world circumstances, though.

We need to consider that drones earmarked for deliveries have a maximum payload of only 2.2 kilograms – too small for many of the goods routinely bought online.

Anything heavier than that limit will need to be shipped by more conventional means, which could be said to defeat the purpose of the new technology.

Security is another key concern. This ‘blog has warned on occasion about the peril posed by so-called ‘porch pirates’ to goods delivered to consumers’ homes.

That fear of theft is one factor contributing to a rise in the number of Irish online shoppers taking advantage of the flexibility of drop2shop.

Rather than having expensive goods left outside their properties or having to trek to a city or parcel lockers which are still limited in number, they can simply collect and return items via the same convenience store in which they already shop on a regular basis.

Furthermore, arguments about the potential environmental merits of drones – effecting deliveries while reducing the number of delivery vehicles on the roads and the carbon footprint which they account for – is already a reality with drop2shop.

Both e-commerce deliveries and returns are brought to and from participating store premises on the same vehicles which bring stock, thereby overcoming the need for a specific parcel fleet.

As much as innovation and invention is to be championed, we recognise that consumers aren’t prepared to wait for advances in logistical technologies, just as they don’t want to wait around for their parcels.

What they do want is a system which works now and in a way which suits their own lives and shopping habits.

By the time that drones and the regulations which will govern their activities have reached that point, any commercial novelty or benefit may well have upped and flown away.