We all know how drone technology is being utilised for commercial applications, from mapping construction sites through photogrammetry to collecting crop data for agricultural use, drones are helping companies to acquire data faster which allows them to make decisions and plan projects quicker while saving on cost and reducing risk. One area of drone application that has been in the works for a while but only recently started to take off is drone delivery. Companies using drone delivery for their products and services are small at the moment but that will most likely change as drone technology matures, risks are mitigated and regulations are relaxed.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Drone Delivery
The drone delivery market is a multi-billion dollar industry, according to a recent report, the market for drone deliveries will be worth over $18 billion by the year 2026.
Some of the areas where drone deliveries are starting to make a huge difference are in last-mile retail delivery, emergency supplies like medicine and medical equipment to rural communities and restaurant/takeaway deliveries.
As with all new technology that is being used in a new field, there are both advantages and disadvantages, and in the early stages of their development, the disadvantages may seem to outweigh the advantages.
However, after a while and once companies have carried out trials and gathered lots of data, problems can be identified, analysed, and minimised or eliminated.
With drone delivery, there are advantages that will appeal to certain types of companies, especially for companies that are looking for quick delivery times for lightweight items.
Advantages Of Drone Delivery
Faster delivery times – even in the age of Amazon Prime and next day delivery, consumers will always favour faster delivery times and with drones, companies will be able to provide same-day delivery, often within hours of placing an order. This is because unlike the traditional methods of delivery, drones can be dispatched quickly, they will not be delayed by traffic and will not be limited by roads allowing drone pilots to take the shortest route to their destination.
Reduced energy/labour costs – As most of these drones will be powered by smart batteries, drone delivery companies will be able to save on energy costs by reducing their need for fossil fuel. This also helps lower their carbon footprint, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help in the fight against climate change. Labour costs will also be reduced as companies will not require as many truck/van drivers for the final part of the delivery.
Easier Delivery To Isolated Areas – Drones will make it easier to deliver essential supplies to people living in areas that are hard to reach by road. This is especially useful in cases where people may need some kind of emergency medical assistance, for example, this story from the BBC tells of a man in Sweden who suffered a cardiac arrest and was saved by the quick deployment of a defibrillator via a drone which allowed the doctor who was administering to save his life.
Disadvantages Of Drone Delivery
Initial Investment – The implementation of a robust drone delivery system will be expensive, from purchasing high-end drones and developing flight management systems to training or hiring new drone pilots, companies will need to invest heavily to operate a robust drone delivery service.
Limited Range/Flight Time – Most drone delivery companies are only providing this service on a local level. Drones have a very limited range and flight time when compared to traditional delivery methods.
Payload Capacity – Because of their overall design and structure, most delivery drones will only be able to carry lightweight payloads. This is why most drone deliveries are for groceries, takeaway food, medicine and medical equipment. It will be a while before you will be able to order large household appliances for drone delivery.
Hacking/Theft – Goods delivered by drones will also be susceptible to hacking and theft, criminals will try and find a way to hack into the flight management system and divert the drone to another location. Some may even try to knock them out of the sky, however, as drones are equipped with high-resolution cameras, the risk of theft will be minimised.
Weather – Another issue that will limit drone delivery will be the weather, especially in high-windy conditions. Heavy rain and thunderstorms will also have an adverse effect on drone delivery, so this is another area where drone delivery will have limitations.
Price – Faster delivery almost always results in more expense for consumers.
Drone Delivery Companies
The list below isn’t a comprehensive one, I am sure there are a lot more local retailers providing drone delivery services in rural areas; however, these are the only ones that have detailed information about their drone delivery service.
One thing to keep in mind is that China is way ahead of every other country when it comes to drone delivery, this comes as no surprise as China has some of the biggest drones manufacturers in the world. Many of the delivery drones operating in China can carry heavy payloads, some, like the ones developed by JD.com, have maximum payload capacities of several 100kg.
Amazon Prime Air
Jeff Bezos first floated the idea of drone delivery in 2013, back then many may have thought it was a far fetched idea and something out of a science fiction film. Amazon made its first drone delivery in the UK in 2016, however, the program seems to have stalled since then as the page for their drone delivery service has not been updated. The last update regarding Amazon’s drone delivery service came in 2020 when they were given permission by the FAA to carry out drone delivery in the USA. Although it is expected that they will eventually roll out their drone delivery service in more areas, the fact that they are falling behind their rivals is a little surprising.
This drone company was founded in 2014 and they provide them with an all-in-one drone delivery system. They currently offer 4 types of drones for delivery, each having a different payload capacity and range. Their latest drone is the Condor, which looks more like an unmanned helicopter, it has a range of 200km and a maximum payload capacity of 180kg. Along with their proprietary flight management software, DDC offers a robust all-in-one solution for drone delivery and the system is being used in a wide range of industries. One area where their drone delivery service has been really beneficial is delivering vital medical supplies to the indigenous population who usually reside in remote areas that are hard to reach by road.
FlyTrex is an Israeli based start-up that operates drones delivery services in Iceland and the USA. They mainly cater to the retail and restaurant industry offering fast delivery services for local businesses. Their drones have a payload capacity of 3kg and can complete a 5-mile round trip. Currently, they are only operating in North Carolina, however, and have partnerships with Wal-Mart and Chilli’s restaurant. In late 2021 they received $40 million in funding that will help them improve their operations and expand to other areas in the USA.
Manna Drone Delivery
This is an Irish based drone delivery company that was founded in 2018 and currently offers drone delivery services in a small town called Balbriggan in County Dublin. The company delivers lightweight items like groceries, takeaways and medicine up to a maximum capacity of 2kg and within a 2km radius from its base of operations. The company recently raised $25 million in funding that will help them expand and offer this service in other areas of Ireland.
This company is owned by Alphabet which is Google’s parent company and currently runs drone delivery services in the USA, Australia and Finland. The company has made over 200,000 drone deliveries and has found the most success in Australia where it has made over 100,000 deliveries. In Australia they have partnered up with some big retailers like Coles and Roll’d and the popular fast-food chain KFC. In the USA, they offer drone delivery services in Christiansburg which is a small town in the state of Virginia and in Finland they do drone delivery in the small Vousarri neighbourhood of Helsinki. The Wing drone and its flight management software have all been built and developed in house. The drone has multiple redundancies in place and can carry out a 12-mile round trip and can carry a maximum payload capacity of 1.2kg.
Zipline is a U.S. based company that operates in several African countries delivering vital medical supplies to hospitals, health clinics and people who reside in remote areas. They are the first commercial drone delivery service to operate in Africa and to date, they have made nearly 300,000 deliveries. Currently, they operate in Rwanda and Ghana but have plans to use their drone delivery system in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Kenya. There are plans to expand into other countries like India, Japan and the Philippines. Zipline design and manufacture their drones and the specs are impressive, they can fly 160 km in a single journey and have a delivery time of 15-45 minutes from the moment an order is placed. Their drones can carry 1.8 kg payloads and have multiple redundancies in place for safer missions. Recently they raised $250 million in funding and partnered up with Wal-Mart to deliver health and wellness products in certain parts of the state of Arkansas.
Matternet is a company that has developed an innovative approach to drone delivery. With the combination of their M2 drone, Matternet Station and their cloud-hosted flight management system, Matternet provides an end-end drone delivery solution for health care providers and retailers. The M2 drone can carry payloads of up to 2kg and can make a 20km journey on one battery charge. They have partnered with several logistic operators to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and clinics and operate in the USA, Switzerland and Abu Dhabi. Their biggest operation is in Abu Dhabi where they have partnered with the Abu Dhabi health ministry and implemented a city-wide drone delivery system to deliver medical supplies to its hospitals.
Another drone delivery start-up that is making some waves in the USA, and around the world is SkyDrop also known as Flirtey. SkyDrop runs a full-stack drone delivery service, from designing and manufacturing their own drones to developing software applications for flight management. Their drone delivery system is operating in the USA and New Zealand and they have partnered up with major brands and organisations to deliver food, groceries and medical supplies.
DHL was one of the first companies to test the viability of using drones for delivery, back in 2013 their parcelcopter 1.0 made a 1km journey carrying a small parcel across the Rhine to DHL HQ. Over the past few years, they have tested and improved their drone delivery system and have successfully integrated it into their logistics chain to help with last-mile deliveries of medicine and other vital goods to remote communities in Germany and Tanzania. Their latest drone is the parcelcopter 4.0, it can make a 65km round journey, has a payload capacity of 4k and a top speed of 130km/h and can be operated in windy and rainy weather.
Meituan Drone Delivery Service
Meituan is a Chinese online shopping platform that connects consumers with local businesses. They work with these businesses to offer deals in the form of vouchers to customers who use their app. They also offer food delivery from local restaurants and takeaways and were one of the first companies to trial autonomous drone delivery in certain parts of the city of Shenzen back in 2017. They have delivered hundreds of thousands of meals to over 8000 customers and are now looking to expand into other cities. Their drones can deliver within a 3km radius, and they aim to complete each order in 17 minutes or less.
Alibaba is one of the largest multinational corporations in the world although most people may only be familiar with their B2B eCommerce operations. They have been delivering via drones since 2015, although not much is available on the web about their drone delivery service. The last update was in 2017, according to the Indian Times website, Alibaba made three drone deliveries from Putian to Meizhou Island which is roughly around 5km. The delivery was made in 9 minutes with each drone carrying around 4kg of passion fruit.
JD Drone Delivery Service
JD.com is one of China’s largest eCommerce companies and they have been making drone deliveries since 2016. Their drone delivery program started in 2015 and since then they have delivered thousands of products via their drones. JD.com design and develop their own drones as well as their own flight management software. They have built a drone logistics network that has a 300km radius in the Chinese province of Shaanxi. One of their heavy-duty drones called the JDX-500 can carry up to 500kg payload and travel several hundred km and is being used to carry heavy cargo between their warehouses.
Everdrone is a Swedish company that provides drone-related solutions for first responders and public safety organisations. Their drone delivery system can be used to deliver vital supplies like medicine, food and medical equipment to people who live in rural areas and need emergency help. Every drone mission is managed and overseen from their control centre and their system is integrated with CSAM CoordCom, a leading Europe wide dispatch system, which allows them to coordinate with first responders and other emergency services efficiently and with little delay.
Spright is a subsidiary of Air Methods which is one of the leading air emergency medical services in the USA. Spright will spearhead its drone division and will help with delivering medical supplies to hospitals and clinics throughout the USA. Air methods have signed an exclusive contract with German drone manufacturer, Wingcopter to supply them with the Wingcopter 198 delivery drone. This is a VTOL drone that has a range of 110km, a payload capacity of 6kg and a top speed of100 km/h.
Ehang are well-known for their race to produce to first commercially viable taxi- drone, they have already carried out several successful trials and hope to have a fully-functioning drone taxi service in one of China’s smart cities in the near future. Ehang has also branched out to drone delivery, they currently have 2 drones built specifically for logistical purposes and their flagship E216 taxi-drone can be converted into a heavy cargo carrying UAV. They are currently developing a full-stack drone delivery service and have partnered up with a couple of companies to offer this service in certain areas of China.
Antwork is one of the lesser-known drone manufacturers from China, but they have been making emergency medical deliveries via drones for a few years which was ramped up during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. They develop their own drones and software for mission management and recently raised over $300 million in funding which will help them expand their drone logistical network and expand their area of operations
FedEx have making drone deliveries since 2019, not much is known about their drone delivery service. They partnered with Alphabets Wing to deliver lightweight packages in Christiansburg Virginia and also recently partnered with SkyPorts in Ireland for drone cargo deliveries between Shannon airport and Foynes Port.