Drones Start Delivering

But will they really deliver the goods?

Drone deliveries just got real. We’ve been reading about them for a good while, along with the occasional news story about a prototype drone model making a product delivery to someone’s doorstep.

But drone deliveries have suddenly taken a major step into the commercial mainstream with the announcement that the first home deliveries of packages from Walgreens have started. They’re being handled by Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet — the parent company of Google.

Wing itself received a special certification from the Federal Aviation Administration recently that allows it to make commercial air deliveries directly to homes in the United States. That’s a first.

In addition to the Walgreens account, Wing is also delivering OTC medication, gifts and other items on behalf of Sugar Magnolia, a Virginia-based retailer.

How do these deliveries work? Customers order products via a special app, and can opt in to receive their items via FedEx Express delivered by drone, which lowers the packages to a designated spot in a yard or driveway.

Wing, Walgreens and Sugar Magnolia aren’t the only people nosing around this method of delivery. Walmart has filed a patent application for a system for retrieving packages delivered by drone, and UPS is also getting into the mix.  The FAA has given approval to UPS’s new Flight Forward subsidiary that will allow it to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operations. And right on cue, the first Flight Forward agreement for drone delivery services has just been announced, with CVS pharmacies.

So it’s pretty clear that drones have finally broken through to the point where they can be serioiusly tested for consumer use and acceptance. Next, it will be interesting to gauge consumer reaction.  Will drone deliveries break out into the mainstream, or are they destined to remain more of a curiosity?  Here’s one early read from online business owner Mark Reasbeck:

“[It’s] nice that everybody … has nothing else to do but to order stuff from Walgreens and just sit there and wait for the delivery. What happens if you’re not home?  How much [cost] for that service?  They have to pay for a ‘shopper’ and then all the pilots watching the drone.  This is not needed on so many levels.”

What are your thoughts on this latest transport frontier? Is it a flash in the pan? … or poised for phenomenal success?

The wider implications of the “deliver it to my door” mentality.

There’s been quite a bit of attention paid to the impact of online retail on bricks-and-mortar sectors like shopping centers.  More than a few of them have started looking like Potemkin Villages. Some forecasts predict that the number of indoor shopping malls in America will contract by as much as one-third in the coming years.

On the other hand, the changing dynamics of e-tailing are having the opposite effect when it comes to shipping logistics … because not only are consumers shopping online in record numbers, they’re also taking advantage of delivery options that are bringing merchandise directly to them in 24 or 48 hours – even same-day deliveries in some cases.

What this means is that the efficiencies in procurement, inventory and distribution that drove many distribution centers to be built in outlying locations aren’t exactly working in today’s “deliver it to me and deliver it to me now” mindset.

[This is why we’re hearing about solutions such as drone deliveries – but that’s still a ways in the future and could eventually begin to cause congestion in a new realm – up in the air.]

In the meantime, more delivery vehicles than ever are competing with commuter traffic on already-congested highways during peak time periods. A shortage of qualified truckers is spurring development of driverless trucking, while the delivery system as a whole is running at full capacity (if not full efficiency).

Of particular concern is the so-called “last mile” delivery aspect in urban environments. It isn’t merely the issue of traffic congestion.  It’s also city planning codes (outdated), parking restrictions (made even more difficult thanks to the current fad in “progressive” cities of adding bike lanes while removing on-street stopping and parking), and load limitations (adding even more challenges and complexity).

But nature abhors a vacuum, and there are some interesting developments happening to address the challenges. The use of data analytics is growing exponentially, with route maps, GPS data, and real-time expected-versus-actual travel time updates allowing for transport rerouting to happen “in the moment.”

Other novel solutions, such as smart lockers that receive multiple shipments in a central location, plus the use of mobile warehouses within urban areas enabling less reliance on the big remote distribution centers, are emerging.

Burgeoning ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are contributing to more congestion in urban areas – just think how many more ride-sharing vehicles are on the road today compared to taxi cabs in the past. But in rural or remote areas the opposite issue is in play – difficult accessibility.  This is where drone deliveries are a welcome development — including during in the wake of natural disaster occurrences where traditional transportation methods might be impossible — or at the very least highly dangerous.

What are your thoughts about the friction between “convenience and congestion”?  Will technology help us smooth out the rough edges — or are we in for even more frustrations?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.