New Possibilities in Autonomous Delivery

A few days ago it emerged that Amazon had put a dozen employees to work to investigate self driving technology. This is a fairly small scale effort that has not gathered much attention but it could turn out to be equally significant as the much more prominent drone effort.

The public is enthralled and at the same time terrified by a future of drones ferrying goods and people around cities. It is hard to imagine the airspace filling up with drones that significantly replace the tens and hundreds of thousands of journeys of people travelling to work and delivery drivers making their drops. While only able to operate in two dimensions the road system remains the best option here as the space around each vehicle can be very small, especially if the majority is self-driving and is communicating with each other to avoid collisions. By contrast even a small fraction of failing aircraft would wreak much greater havoc. The noise coming from even the quietest electric drones would be deafening if there are thousands. And finally the push-back against privacy invasions from drones is not to be underestimated.

This leaves ground transport as the only viable large scale transport option. However, the last yards, as opposed to the last mile, are still difficult to cover for delivery traffic. This is where a combination of autonomous delivery trucks and drones could be very promising.

The basic idea would be that a delivery truck could carry a small fleet of drones that are ready to dispatch packages to the intended recipient. After approaching the destination, a drone would emerge from the roof of the van and fly to the destination.

In the suburbs this could be an area at the back of someone’s house (as in the early Amazon drone videos), or a drop box at the front that only opens for an approaching drone. It could even hover in front to allow someone to take the package. As the back is typically secure it could drop things without the owner being there. The privacy implications would be minimal as the package would only fly a few yards, possibly over your house in order to deliver what you ordered.

In more urban areas you could imagine multi-apartment buildings (without manned receptions) to be upgraded. Similar to individual air conditioning units drop boxes could be installed on every apartment for a few hundred dollars that would open to receive deliveries. If the windows are big enough you could even imagine them to open automatically to allow for drops and the drones depositing the package right inside your home. Balconies are another great potential drop point. Apartments with only backyard facing windows are no obstacle as the drone would just go over the building to reach the other side.

Large apartment blocks without opening windows or balconies and businesses would probably continue with manned desks for accepting deliveries for a while but automating these, including drone flight indoors are possible in a more distant future.

This leaves only very rural areas where we’d see long distance drone flight as there would not be enough packages to require a van to send there. It also opens up otherwise inaccessible places, very important in the developing world.

It could even eliminate the need to park. Instead a delivery van could circle a block, release one of its dozen drones whenever it is closest to the destination building to make drops. It would then return a few minutes later to collect them again, potentially without ever stopping as drones fly out and land while the vehicle is moving at normal speeds. In each case the flying distance would be only a few tens of yards horizontally and a few tens of yards vertically, if they have to go over a building to reach the other side.

There are added advantages. The battery technology to cover a few hundred yards is very unchallenging, unlike the multi-mile journeys from depot to house. The drones could recharge inside the van until the next drop. Given the lower range they could also carry larger weights, making autonomous grocery deliveries including drinks practical. There are fewer safety issues: they’d be close to the ground while making the horizontal journey, avoiding pedestrians and other obstacles carefully. They’d then find a safe square meter or so without people beneath them to make the vertical climb to reach the destination and make their drop, before returning again.

By contrast, a much hyped competing technology of small autonomous ground crawling delivery vehicles seems less promising. There is no mechanism to drop the contents if the owner isn’t there and even small curbs seem like a major obstacle. Drones could hover or even set down temporarily in order to avoid all pedestrians much more easily, while always being able to fly over or across obstacles. For added safety drones could be prevented from flying where pedestrian density is above a certain level. It’s also to be determined whether it would be safest to fly them at eye level (with mesh around the rotors to protect pedestrians) or at 3m height just above people, while still avoiding flying directly above them at all times. Also, the maximum weight of any single drone package could be limited to no more than a few kg. All these measures would result in very safe operation where falling drones should never cause much injury.

Eventually you could imagine all kinds of delivery being handled this way, not just packages but also daily mail, groceries and take-out food. The drone-releasing vehicles could come in all sizes, from scooter sized single drone ones serving time critical take-out deliveries that can swerve through traffic to very large vans that serve large areas.

Another benefit could be to switch away from cardboard packaging, which requires recycling and more garbage truck trips. Instead, you could imagine reusable plastic crates being used. They don’t need to be locked as the grip of the drone would act as a lock until delivery is complete. After announcing its impending arrival a few minutes earlier it may be that a drone landing in someone’s backyard, window or front room would then give 1-2 minutes to the user to empty the crate to take it away immediately again. If that is not an option it could be left in the same spot for pick-up during the next delivery and a deposit system could be used to incentivise their re-use. Closed plastic crates are also better in any weather than cardboard that can get wet.

Completely autonomous deliveries could also be shifted to off-peak hours, including night-times when traffic is very light so this could also help reduce rather than increase traffic.

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