Delivery Drones: Fantasy, or the Future of Online Retail?

Amazon, Walmart, and other retail giants are piloting drone delivery programs, all vying to be the first real-life Gryzzl (hopefully with less unauthorized surveillance). Consumers are receptive to the idea ― especially if it would speed up delivery. A survey of online shoppers found that 33% would be willing to use drones for quicker delivery. Online retailers are eager to tap into this emerging technology to provide consumers with same-day service, particularly where doing so can help them capture additional market share over brick-and-mortar retailers.

Even though it sounds like sci-fi, drone delivery may soon be a reality. Amazon introduced its proposed drone delivery program, Amazon Prime Air, in 2013. Just last month, Walmart announced that it is seeking permission to test its own drone delivery systems for home delivery, curbside pickup, and managing warehouse inventory. Google says that its drone delivery service, Project Wing, will be delivering packages to customers’ doorsteps by 2017. At least one successful drone delivery has already happened in the United States. In July 2015, a startup company in Wise County, Virginia, piloted a drone carrying medical supplies from an airfield to a rural clinic about 35 miles away.

Still, these programs face other challenges before they can get off the ground. While drones are currently approved for hobbyists, retailers need Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to use drones for commercial purposes. Many retailers, like Amazon, have already secured permission to begin testing their proposed programs. An FAA taskforce is also preparing recommendations for drone registration rules. The FAA expects to have the regulations in place by mid-December, just in time for anyone who put a drone on their holiday wish-list. While toy model aircraft will likely be exempt from this requirement, most other drones will be required to register with the FAA.

In addition to regulatory hurdles, retailers also face logistical hurdles preparing their warehouses for drone delivery. Online sellers will have to alter their packaging and order staging to accommodate new delivery patterns. Air traffic management and airspace restrictions could also limit the routes available to retail drones. There are also substantial limitations on drone delivery, including distance limits, weight limits, and weather-related restrictions that could make drone delivery less reliable than traditional shipping methods. Drones are necessarily limited in the weight and size of packages they can carry ― not all items will be available for drone delivery. Concerns like rain, wind, and snow also have more of an impact on drones than on traditional delivery vehicles. Another hurdle for long-distance deliveries ― aside from the drone’s capacity ― is the FAA’s rule requiring that drones remain in the line of sight of the operator.

Despite all of these challenges, retailers like Amazon continue to explore drone delivery as the next innovation in online shopping technology. The continuing development of FAA and other regulations on commercial drones will likely shape the future of this technology.

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