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This year marks the launch of some of the first publicly available drone delivery programs — Alphabet’s Project Wing, for example, debuted its program last month. In order to successfully launch and safely operate such programs, firms will need to tackle various operational issues.
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One such issue is how to safely drop parcels from the sky to the ground undamaged. A number of companies in the logistics space — both major players and niche startups — are formulating solutions:
- Amazon has struck numerous patents that would assist with drone package dropoffs. The e-tailer has been awarded a patent for a system that enables drones to recognize and avoid objects in a yard that might get in the way of a falling package. The firm has also been awarded a patent for a technology that enables drones to recognize human movements, which could be used to drop parcels directly to humans, for example.
- Valqari, a startup founded in 2017, has created purpose-built mailboxes for drones to drop parcels on top of. The firm’s mailbox (pictured below) utilizes smart technology to communicate with a drone and guide it to the landing pad. Autonomous drones will be able to use GPS coordinates to locate delivery addresses.
- Drone Delivery Solutions and FlytBase — a pair of drone startups — inked a partnership last year to codevelop smart drone mailboxes similar to Valqari’s. The firms also intend to develop a precision landing kit with which to outfit drones.
- Other firms working on drone deliveries — such as UPS and FedEx — could also develop ancillary drone tech, though they haven’t revealed such plans as yet. UPS and FedEx have expended significant time and resources on delivery drones and won’t be able to recoup those resources unless they can seamlessly drop off parcels delivered via drone. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them debut a solution that aims to make drop-offs safer.
But the proliferation of drone delivery drop-off solutions will create a fragmented landscape that’ll be problematic for consumers and logistics firms. If each drone delivery company creates a proprietary system or technology for package drop-offs, it could limit which services consumers use, as installing multiple systems could be unwieldy. This would effectively limit the revenue-generating abilities of companies’ drone delivery programs. For firms that have bet heavily on drone programs, that’d be a significant disappointment.
To remedy this, public entities like the United States Postal Service (USPS) may need to create standardized mailboxes or landing pads for drone delivery parcels, though that would be challenging in its own right. The USPS owns and regulates all mailboxes in the US, allowing itself and all third-party delivery firms to deliver mail and parcels to a standardized receptacle.
The USPS could mimic this approach for drone deliveries, creating a new standardized mailbox or landing pad that consumers will need to have at their homes to receive deliveries via drone. By using a standardized solution, all consumers would be able to utilize the services of a variety of different drone delivery companies.
The feasibility of such an initiative is doubtful, however. The USPS is currently cash strapped, having lost over $2 billion last quarter alone. Pouring significant resources into a new concept like drone mailbox standards isn’t likely to be a high priority.
Alternatively, an intra-industry consortium or standards group could work to create a universal drone delivery mailbox, but even that could be time-consuming. Ultimately, a universal standard for drone delivery tech is a far way off.
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