In recent months, the press has run so many stories about Amazon’s plans to develop airborne drones for last mile delivery, it has been easy to miss the various different companies developing ground drones for the same purpose.

There’s no shortage of them. Perhaps the most widely publicised has been Starship, a company with a delivery robot that uses GPS to deliver the equivalent of up to three bags of shopping to any address within 30 minutes of a depot. The manufacturers claim that they’re cheap to operate, can hop up kerbs, avoid pedestrians and take photos of anyone who tries to interfere with them– keeping cargo safe until the purchaser opens the cargo box using a smartphone app.

Then there’s Dispatch, a company with a ground drone that works on similar principles, and the more secretive Marble which has yet to release details of its own offering.

Ingenious as these early experiments with ground drones are, will they really be able to change the last mile delivery landscape?

Certainly, they appear to have a number of advantages over the aerial drones currently favoured by Amazon. All airborne drones will need to comply with airspace regulations and it’s easy to imagine that – once the novelty has worn off – many will regard them as a nuisance.

On the other hand, because ground drones are so new, there’s no predicting what regulations will be created to control them. Safety is likely to be a paramount issue, and the drones’ inventors have yet to prove that their products can be used safely in large numbers on crowded city streets.

Cutting the cost of last mile delivery?

But for the big players at least, ground drones form a market that is going to be worth watching. Cheap to run, and non-polluting, these electric couriers could in future help cut the cost of last mile delivery as they have no driver and don’t fall foul of emissions regulations.

For the foreseeable future, however, they will suffer from limitations. While one delivery van can be used to deliver to dozens of customers, a drone can only deliver to one. And because they can only deliver to customers a short distance away from a depot, store or warehouse, companies will have to develop stronger infrastructure with many more ‘micro depots’ before drones can service a significant proportion of the UK’s urban population. That’s not to mention the huge numbers of drones they’ll need to invest in.

And with green fleet technology moving towards the mainstream in the car market is it only a matter of time before it is established enough for commercial vehicle operators?  And is the case for drones as strong without the environmental benefit?

So, will ground drones change the last mile delivery landscape? Almost certainly ‘yes’. but perhaps not in the way we might first expect. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, and when it does it certainly won’t see the end of the traditional driver and van – although these will probably be used to deliver to a larger number of small depots outside urban centres rather than direct to the customer.

In coming years, therefore, smart delivery firms will continue to find ways of keeping their traditional fleet operating costs as low as possible, often via flexible rental, but also keep their eyes on all areas of emerging technology.

And who knows? Maybe Amazon’s airborne drones will have taken off too.

Bron: flex-a-rent Date: 12/09/2016

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