The Longest Last Mile
The Logistics of Delivery Drones
Don’t believe the hype…
I used to get a question from clients on a fairly regular basis—the question went along the lines of: When do Delivery Drones begin being a thing? My answer would disappoint most, but really you have to kind of do the math on this one, before you realize just how much has to be done before we get there.
Besides the obvious problems of battery life versus distance along with weight and how much a single drone delivery costs and how many flights before ROI. There’s problems about where and how to land, like should we all have designated landing areas in our yards or rooftops. If it’s a building rooftop, who does the sorting and delivering or is everyone’s stuff just left in a pile? Assuming it’s not a giant online retailer, but say the local pharmacy, do you drop the drugs without a human presence, or do you have to hover until a human with a pin code arrives? And where and how does the drone recharge? I’ve seen and heard so many possible systems!
But even beyond all that logistical dilemma lies a much larger one…
The real logistical issues are going to be with the UAS Traffic Management (UTM) systems. It seems like such an easy thing until you think about a city like Manhattan. You’ll have drone messengers, food delivery, delivery services, laundry services, diaper services, retail delivery, groceries, and just about every other thing you can imagine. Millions of drones. All in a perfect and non-stop ballet of precision and avoidance!
…and that’s not considering the thousands of pilotless air taxis!
Or an entire system of priorities, like emergency equipment, police and fire drones, unmanned ambulances, etc., etc.
Sunny with a chance of hot soup rain and possible pharmaceutical hail…
The photo above was a common one at the turn of the 19th century, when there might be only two cars in an entire county and yet somehow they’d find each other.
Imagine a rain of hot soup, a hail of pills, and a meteor shower of packages…
How do you go about creating a system that will not only manage the flights of millions of payload-heavy drones but also monitors the manned flights above and intersecting that air space as well as any unidentified objects and what to do about them? A system like this will no doubt require AI, and all of the AI trappings/baggage that will go along with it. But more importantly, how does the system track and manipulate millions of devices down to the centimeter.
The UTM is going to become an incredibly intricate part of any city’s government. It will need to have the ability to include special missions, new parameters, and will no doubt be a huge budget line item for maintenance and repair. It’s going to need auditors and supervisors and investigators. It will need to interact with other city systems, private business systems, as well as state and federal systems. If you’re getting the impression that this is going to cost millions if not billions of dollars, you’d be right.
Currently, there are UTM tests under way at the FAA test areas. NASA has been testing UTM at its Ames facilities, and other private companies are also testing UTM.
How does a system like this work? The details are still sketchy. But here’s what you can probably expect. Companies and individuals will register with the UTM (either an area or city system) and will get a hardware package to add to their drone.This will make sure each drone has the minimum requirements to operate in the system and will include a communications chip like 5G, an altimeter, a GNSS chip (similar to a GPS chip but much more accurate), a chip that stores flight data and a unique ID.
And this is just from the city side… you still would have a whole other system on the drone owner side that would include, package data such as weight and mass, energy management,craft maintenance, mileage, flight logs and any additional pertinent data.