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Six drone delivery use cases and lessons for companies to use

Traffic congestion, road work and limited parking options are among the many things delivery drivers deal with when bringing cargo to customers. Delivering things by drone could address all those challenges and others. Drone delivery is still in the early stages, but some companies are experimenting with the option. Here are six examples:

Sending medical supplies and samples via drones

One of the primary advantages of arranging deliveries with drones is that the contents carried could arrive substantially faster than if taken in a road-based vehicle. That’s crucial when delivering supplies that can help save lives.

In Ghana, a Californian company called Zipline wants to have four distribution centers operate 600 on-demand flights for medical supplies; the drones will bring the supplies to their destinations within a half-hour. It says the project, which will serve approximately 2,000 medical centers and 12 million patients, could ramp up its delivery frequency to thousands a day, too.

Moving at the speed of drones
(Photo credit: UPS)

Then, in Gothenburg, Sweden, a successful trial showed the potential of using drones to transport medical samples between two hospitals. It involved an off-the-shelf drone operated by a company called Everdrone. The flight was slightly under three miles.

These examples show the possibilities for transporting time-sensitive or delicate items. They also demonstrate the potential for using drones to deal with other challenges that could otherwise slow the progress of a delivery. In the Swedish city, especially, traffic backups and rush-hour demand pose obstacles that drones can overcome.

Making progress with drone meal deliveries

Food delivery is another area that drones could prove their viability, especially if they bring food to hungry consumers faster than other methods allow. Uber’s food delivery arm, Uber Eats, recently partnered with a company called ModalAI. The latter company’s technology enables a drone to avoid obstacles and navigate through its environment without needing GPS technology.

(Photo credit: Uber)

Instead, the drone depends on a 4G cellular link to Uber’s cloud server. The server allows for the operation and monitoring of the drone, while an on-board receiver helps the drone recognize and steer clear of obstacles as it moves.

If Uber Eats proceeds with this method, it doesn’t take humans out of the equation. But, a drone brings the food to a courier who brings it to a customer’s doorstep.

This successful attempt is a positive development for researchers who are looking for new and effective ways to help drones safely reach their destinations.

Helping Amazon continue to meet customer expectations

Amazon is a market leader that continually pushes the envelope regarding what’s possible for customer deliveries. For example, during its most recent Prime Day discount bonanza, the company promised that people would get their items in only one day.

Hybrid drone to hit the air.
(Photo credit: Amazon)

Amazon boasts 150 million square feet of warehouse space across more than 175 fulfillment centers, most of which operate in North America. The company uses various strategies to help its customers receive their orders faster, ranging from specific ways of arranging inventory to deploying robots that work alongside humans in the sprawling warehouses.

So it’s no surprise that Amazon wants to move into the drone market, too. Its Prime Air program aims to create fully electric drones that fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages of five pounds or less in about a half-hour. The company says 75 to 90 percent of items purchased fall into that weight category.

Its newest drone model can take off and land vertically, plus fly in continual forward motion. Even though Amazon has not confirmed when it will start using this drone or which markets it will serve, the lesson learned here is that the company is not afraid to make bold moves if doing so makes customers more satisfied. It’s too early to say what the outcome will be, but the plans are impressive nonetheless.

Bringing more convenience to grocery shoppers

Although grocery shopping is an essential part of life, it can be a hassle. In Australia, Wing – a branch of Google-associated Alphabet Labs – offers drone-delivered groceries that arrive minutes after people request them through an app. The items customers can order range from hot coffee to over-the-counter drugs and freshly baked bread.

The service launched trials in 2017 and initially offered service in Canberra. At first, only 100 homes could use the service, but a previous trial involved 3,000 deliveries. More recently, people in Queensland can use the option as well. The company notes that one of the things it learned from its earliest drone deliveries on the continent is that parents with young children particularly like the service.

Drone delivery in Canberra, Australia.
(Photo credit: Wing)

Additionally, Queensland is a smart choice for introducing more drone technology because the Australian state is exceptionally eager to facilitate drone technology. For example, the government recently published its drone strategy, and Queensland is the site of an annual drone congress that brings together drone professionals and thought leaders from around the globe.

So, a notable lesson here is that having support from local or regional leaders can be significant in helping companies move forward with their plans. Although more people are embracing drone technology, some still worry about potential safety concerns. Wing received a permit that stipulates how it can operate drones, and the rollout of the technology is seemingly going well so far.

Delivering breakable cargo safely

Some people who feel uncertain about drone technology might wonder about the possibility of items being broken in transit. It’s great to get items quickly, but not if they arrive in an unusable state. An Irish light bulb brand proved that doubt wrong when it made the first delivery of light bulbs by drone in the summer of 2019.

The company, Solus, has an 80-year history and is so popular that it sells a light bulb every six seconds. This first trip sent a package of 30 bulbs from the Solus depot to a convenience store more than 11 miles away. Something essential to learn from this example is that there’s seemingly no limit to what a drone can carry if it’s light enough.

Solus said the contents of the package arrived in perfect condition and ahead of schedule. That result should give confidence to companies that are unsure if their fragile items are suitable for drones.

Sending items to offshore ships

Drones can also work well for delivering things to places that are hard to reach. That’s what Airbus is finding out with its Skyways project. That initiative launched in Singapore to test the feasibility of bringing items to offshore ships with drones. The first trips involved carrying 3D-printed objects on a journey that took about 10 minutes in total.

The company hopes its use of drones can cut costs while reducing emissions. It partnered with local maritime authorities and a logistics company to help make its ideas come to life. The example is another reminder of how companies that want to succeed with drone journeys may need to partner with others to make things go smoothly.

Exciting developments in drone deliveries

These six use cases show how drones can assist with timely deliveries. It will be interesting to see how things progress as other brands follow the leads of these pioneering companies.

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Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a technology journalist and writer interested in manufacturing and the supply chain. Her work has been published on Thomas Insights, Industrial Machinery Digest, American Machinist and Manufacturing.net.

3 Comments

  1. Nice article. I think you will see more companies start to use drones mush faster than people think. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  2. Nice article. I think you are correct the use of drones will expand to other industries in the near future.

  3. I wanted to send a quick note that our DRC drone team (with national and provincial government stakeholders and Swoop Aero) has hit an exciting milestone – repeated, safe transport of vaccines and other products in Equateur province.

    Over the course of the week of August 5th, drones transported vaccines, syringes and essential medicines to Widjifake and the surrounding villages, where children are being vaccinated. The drones completed at least five round-trip flights of 80 kilometers each in one day. The delivery took just about 20 minutes accelerating what is typically a six hour round trip journey for a health worker to travel by car or motorcycle on roads that aren’t always passable. The same drone also flew back logistic and epidemiological data sheets, expired vaccines as well as laboratory samples to accelerate the diagnostic and treatment deadly diseases.

    In total, we completed 50 flights in 5 days reaching approximately 2,000 kilometers and carrying over 25kg of good to Widjifake. The national and provincial authorities have been incredibly supportive and even begun investing in a drone port in Mbandaka.

    The team is immediately beginning to plan the next phase of sustaining routine deliveries in Equateur.

    I’m sharing some photos of the excitement. Please let us know if you have any questions and look for us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to help us share this story as relevant.

    Olivier
    Olivier Defawe, Ph.D.|olivier.defawe@villagereach.org
    Director, Health Systems
    Drones for Health Program Lead

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