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Could Delivery Drones Revolutionize Manufacturing Logistics?

Posted By Paul Tate, December 10, 2013 at 5:27 AM, in Category: Redefining the Supply Chain

Everywhere you look these days, it seems there’s another ambitious new idea to make commercial drones part of our future. From books to bulk shipments, someone, somewhere now seems to be developing an unmanned drone business ready to serve our future delivery needs.

Are these just fly in the sky ideas that will never get off the ground, or could new types of driverless drones really transform the future of the manufacturing logistics industry?

Take a few examples:

During a recent CBS ’60 Minutes’ slot, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos predicted that automated, GPS-directed, delivery drones could be dropping off (or hopefully placing gently) goods weighing up to 5 pounds (over 80% of Amazon’s business) on doorsteps within 30 minutes of an online order, in just four to five years time. Aimed at slashing logistics costs and helping to maintain its wafer-thin margins, the service will be called ‘Prime Air’, use unmanned flying devices known as ‘Octocopters’, and have a 10-mile reach from one of the company’s delivery hubs. "I know this looks like science fiction, but it's not," Bezos told CBS.

Meanwhile, ex-Android team leader Andy Rubin is now leading a team at Google developing new robotics systems that will focus on “the underserved manufacturing and logistics markets”, Rubins told the New York Times. In recent months, Google has snapped up seven robotics-linked technology companies to help spur its efforts. The company is non-specific about much of its experimental work so far – but suggestions range from in-plant pick-up and collection systems, to drone-based bulk shipments between manufacturers and their key distribution centers.

Then there’s former Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, who also has his sights set on commercializing drone technology. He set up unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) company 3D Robotics in 2009 with Mexican-born engineer Jordi Muñoz. The company now has around 100 employees, a manufacturing plant in Tijuana, and sponsors the open-source, hobbyist community, DIY Drones. Mostly focused on the agricultural, mapping, search and rescue, and construction industries right now, the main company's web site also notes that its multicopters are “capable of carrying large payloads in a precise fashion”.

Despite all this innovative activity, there are still a number of constraints to be overcome before this drone-friendly logistics revolution could get underway, however.

1/ Formal air traffic regulations still need to be put in place, although civilian air space is expected to be opened up to many kinds of drones by US authorities in 2015 and in Europe by 2016. Australia already allows the use of UAVs for commercial applications.

2/ Safety technology to make drones more aware of their immediate environment and avoid them flying into people is still regarded by many observers to be in its infancy. Lots of proof will be needed about drones’ ability to avoid collision and damage before they are likely to be accepted in densely populated areas. 

3/ The security of packages and goods on unmanned flying vehicles is a further concern. With no one to guard goods in transit, and new automated procedures needed for signing off deliveries, there’s still work to be done to ensure packages arrive at the right place, and to the right people.

But despite the current obstacles, the momentum to develop faster, cheaper, more automated delivery models for goods and products is certainly gathering pace.

Do you think drone-based logistics solutions could have a future in your manufacturing sector? 

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive


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