Drones – coming to a pavement near you … ?

In November 2016, a New Zealand couple became the first people in the world to have a pizza delivered by drone. Domino’s Pizza flew the Peri-Peri Chicken pizzas to Whangaparaoa, 20 miles from Auckland, with a delivery time of 5 minutes – far faster than the equivalent delivery by road.

There are many reasons why New Zealand was chosen as the launch market for Domino’s, partly because its regulations allowed easier trials of drones by businesses, and partly the physical environment is hospitable – in other words, it’s easier to deliver to a spacious suburban backyard than it is to a Manhattan apartment.

The next month – December 2016 – Amazon announced that it had started drone delivery trails in the UK with two shoppers in the Cambridge area receiving items by drone.  The very first delivery reached the customer in 13 minutes from click to delivery.  Amazon’s vision is for Amazon Prime Air to deliver packages up to ‘five pounds’ in weight in 30 minutes or less using small drones.

The Civil Aviation Authority is allowing Amazon to test drones with a particular focus on flights beyond line of operator sight and on obstacle avoidance.  Amazon are currently permitted to operate during daylight hours when there are low winds and good visibility, but not in rain, snow or icy conditions.  Cambridgeshire – where the first deliveries were made and the extended trial is rolling out – is also notably flat.

As expected, safety is a top priority.  The drones are built with multiple redundancies, as well as sophisticated “sense and avoid” technology.  In terms of integrating Prime Air vehicles into the airspace, Amazon have stated they believe the airspace is safest when small drones are separated from most manned aircraft traffic, and where airspace access is determined by capabilities.

Cynics would say that this is all hot air (no pun intended) and not much more at this stage than a glorified PR opportunity.  Amazon is well aware of the excitable public interest around drones and their website reflects this no fewer than three videos and multiple hi-tech kit photographs about the first couple of deliveries. There can’t be any real doubt that Amazon are genuinely committed to exploring drones and to be the ones ‘pushing the envelope’. They are actively working with regulators and policymakers in various countries in order to make Prime Air a reality for customers globally.  As well as in the UK, Amazon have Prime Air development centres in the U.S., Austria and Israel.

Yet some fundamental questions have still to be answered around the viability of drones – not just commercially, but also technically and regulatory.  With regulations, the global stage doesn’t look set to offer a level playing field.  China has allegedly banned drones completely in busy urban areas. The EU has signalled a “hard-line” stance on drones – although the UK could find itself, post-Brexit, with more freedom to make up its own mind.  On the technical/practical front, as well as the core reliability of the basic design (including battery life and emergency management) there are issues around interception by birdlife or by hostile humans (for example, people with rifles or with remote-control planes).

With all this in mind, there’s still a fair amount of ‘fear factor’ around drones in the minds of the public and the drone industry is acutely aware it needs to strenuously avoid ‘drone crashes into playground’ headlines in this tricky leading-edge stage.  It’s worth remembering that the main market for drones is still predominantly military and governmental.  However it has to be said that, for now, ‘drones in retail’ seems to be all systems go.  Walmart applied for drone licences for shopping delivery in the U.S. last year, although it may be some time yet before we see ASDA branded drones.

It’s also worth noting the wider opportunities that drones offer retailers outside of customer delivery – from aiding construction and supplementing security, they can also play a part in customer insight, allowing retailers to go outside of the four walls to measure traffic and flow, perhaps looking at how vehicles get to store or malls and what conditions seem to deter footfall. There is even a form of drone created (shelfie) for warehouse and supermarket stock management.

I’ll leave the last word to Domino’s Group CEO and Managing Director, Don Meij, who has confirmed that drones aren’t a ‘stunt’ and are indeed part of their long-term delivery strategy.  “Drones can avoid traffic congestion and traffic lights, and safely reduce the delivery time and distance by travelling directly to customers’ homes. This is the future … This will actually create jobs: as we expand, we will look to hire additional team members whose roles will be focused on drone order loading and fleet management.”

Watch the skies.