The massive drone-delivery opportunity
On a recent trip from Montreal to Denver, the airlines managed to misplace my one piece of luggage.
Since I travel extensively around the world, it’s rare that I have my bags checked, but this time Air Canada insisted because of the size of the aircraft. I reluctantly agreed, and they proceeded to lose it somewhere between Montreal and my connecting flight in Toronto.
None of this is terribly unusual. Air travel is a highly complicated system and bags get lost and have to be delivered to people’s houses all the time.
As I arrived in Denver, I felt strangely free. I already knew my bag wasn’t going to be there, so I could take off without dealing with my heavy bag or dragging it through the parking lot to my car and wrestling it into the trunk.
It occurred to me that many people would be willing to pay for this freedom, especially if it didn’t cost too much.
According to the Wall Street Journal, every lost bag today costs the airlines more than $100 per bag, with much of that expense going to the company that delivers the bag to your home. But if that cost was reduced to a fraction of what it is today and handled with a fully automated delivery system, not only would lost bags become far less of an issue, they’d open the door to entirely new opportunities.
If bags could be delivered to your home for $10, many people would jump at this opportunity. For people riding a bus or train to the airport, this would be a no-brainer.
This type of delivery is far different than the flying drone delivery that has become such a hot topic, with the FAA positioning themselves as the gatekeeper for all things flying.
As I have written in a previous column, flying drones will soon be regulated by weight, distance, noise, etc. But automated ground-based delivery will have far fewer limitations and far less scrutiny.
That said, there are still a few technical hurdles to overcome, including the last 100 feet.
Since pizza delivery has become such a staple of today’s “dine anytime” culture, Dominoes has been experimenting with various automated delivery schemes.
Using a driverless motorcycle that uses gyros to stay balanced and an onboard texting system to alert customers that their pizza is near, solves many of the problems involved in food delivery.
Delivering hot food to a waiting customer is vastly different that delivering a package to someone who may or may not be home.
As an example, those waiting for food are typically willing to walk to the street to pick up a delivery. Curbside delivery is vastly different than a front-door delivery.
Flying Delivery Drones Vs. Ground Based Delivery Drones
From a technology standpoint, the biggest problem with home delivery will be the “last 100 feet.” Going from a curb along the road to a front door typically involves climbing steps, broken sidewalks, weeds, bushes, gravel pathways, mud, pets and much more.
From an engineering standpoint, the design process will have to account for even the most absurd edge cases. Dog leashes tangled in the wheels, falling leaves obscuring machine vision, hail, rainstorms, neighborhood kids trying to steal the package, bird droppings and insects are only scratching the surface.
Flying drones eliminate many of the friction points between a machine and the ground it drives or walks on. But there are still many delivery issues that come into play with flying drones and cramped spaces near a front door such as on porches with screen doors and hanging plants.
Since all airborne vehicles are restricted by weight, only a tiny percentage of all packages will be good candidates for the flying drone option. For a number of reasons ranging from security issues to certified pilot requirements, it will also become rather expensive.
For the foreseeable future, the vast majority of package delivery will happen with ground-based vehicles. The question then remains, how much of the delivery process can be automated, and at what point can the vast majority of human labor be eliminated from the system?
Image searches on Google and Bing have a way of tapping into our current level of thinking about a problem, and very few people have really thought through the problem sets involved in delivering a package from a warehouse to a home when there are so many unpredictable obstacles involved.
At the same time, every corporate executive from FedEx, to UPS, to the U.S. Postal Service would like to reduce labor costs.
We continue to transition from delivering pallets to retailers, to delivering packages directly to the home. Rather than spending hours wandering through a shopping mall, we can find what we want with a few clicks of the mouse and it will magically appear on our doorstep the next day.
With automated delivery services, “next day” delivery can be reduced to “next hour” delivery, with the cheapest form of delivery happening in the middle of the night when the least amount of traffic is on the road.
Perhaps a better solution would be to create a curbside automated delivery box for every residence, similar to our mailboxes, with an automated text messaging system that alerts people whenever a delivery has been made.
David Porter’s Smart Box
In much the same way homeowners cover the costs for specialty trash containers that match the semi-automated trash trucks on the road today, homeowners could easily be required to install next-generation mailboxes designed to work with automated delivery machines.
In the late 1990s, I spent time working with David Porter, an ingenious inventor based in Kansas City who had developed and patented an automated delivery box he called SmartBox. As you can see from the photos, a delivery box like this can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including some that were as inconspicuous as a park bench with secured spaces hidden below the seat.
After spending several years trying to get industry leaders to take notice, David finally moved on to other ventures, resigning himself to the fact that he was a couple decades ahead of his time. However, given the chance, entrepreneurs and inventors like David are ready and eager to help solve the problems associated with automated delivery.
A recent Discovery magazine article was titled, “Drone Delivery Services Are Booming In China.” In the column the writer claimed that “the state of drone couriers in China couldn’t contrast more with the situation here in the United States.”
SF Express, China’s largest mail carrier, is currently delivering over 500 packages a day with flying drones. Alibaba is also experimenting with delivering teas via drone.
Drone manufacturer XAircraft, the company that provides all the drones for SF Express, is anticipating their fleet will soon reach several thousand units, with daily deliveries climbing exponentially.
What’s missing from the article, though, is how small these numbers are in comparison to the overall volume of package delivery.
Yes, flying delivery drones will soon become a huge booming industry, but an even bigger opportunity is looming for ground-based delivery drones and all of the systems that will make driverless pizza delivery as common as using ATM machines today.