The Companies Working to Make Drones the Future of Last-Mile Delivery
Using drones to deliver packages directly to customers’ front doors seems like a sci-fi dream but it has become a commercial reality. These drones have the ability to cut down delivery times, reduce pollution, and lower labor costs. The benefits of drones have spurred multiple companies in the retail and logistics industries to partner and develop this innovative technology.
Here a handful of companies that are battling technological and regulatory limitations to implement drones in their delivery operations.
Wing is a pioneer in the drone delivery space and completed the first commercial drone delivery to a US home in October 2019. The magnitude of this accomplishment has been recognized by the Smithsonian, which will include the drone in the National Air & Space Museum's collection.
The Alphabet-owned company was founded in 2012 as a project in the company’s X moonshot division. Alphabet spun off Wing as its own company in 2016 and it has now conducted more than 100,000 flights across three continents. To ensure it has a constant stream of packages to deliver the company has forged major partnerships with FedEx and Walgreens to drop off parcels and pharmacy goods.
Since 2015 Chinese e-commerce titan JD.com has developed seven types of delivery drones, which have accumulated more than 6,600 hours of flight time on more than 100 routes. JD.com’s drone program has proven successful and the company has continued to introduce new routes, even piloting drones in Indonesia in January 2019, its first foreign test.
However, the company’s drone delivery program truly hit its stride in 2020 as the Chinese government locked down travel to contain the spread of Covid-19. The lockdown blocked major roads and highways, making it difficult for retailers to deliver goods to remote areas. JD.com drones became a vital tool to meet consumer demand despite travel restriction, showcasing the technology's potential. For instance, delivering supplies to villages the Chinese province of Baiyangdian would take hours via roads and ferries, while JD.com’s drones did the job in as little as 10 minutes.
UPS was among the first companies to obtain US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to operate a drone delivery service. The service, called Flight Forward, has a strong use case delivering commercial packages, but the logiostics provider is looking into other potential applications. In March 2019, the company teamed up with autonomous delivery drone startup Matternet to experiment with using drones to ferry medical samples and supplies around WakeMed hospital and campus in North Carolina.
As the company looks to scale its operations it will need larger and faster drones capable of delivering all kinds of products. To ensure it is ready, Flight Forward partnered with Wingcopter in March 2020 to develop a new type of delivery drone for its global delivery operations.
Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery service, was announced in mid-2019 but hasn’t launched commercial operations, despite expectations that it would launch within months of its initial announcement. This setback but that hasn’t stopped the company from continuing to invest in the nascent service, which it now believes will launch by August 31, 2020, per Business Insider.
In May 2019, international express delivery service provider DHL, launched a smart drone delivery service in China. The service was launched in partnership with EHang, a intelligent autonomous drone company EHang. The deal made DHL the first international express company to provide drone delivery in China.
Before its Chinese drone venture, DHL had experimented with drone delivery in Germany with its Parcelcopter program. Parcelcopter was fully integrated into its delivery chain following a three-month trial in which it delivered 130 shipments over 8-kilometer distances.
Walmart is working on its own drone delivery program. This was confirmed by two drone delivery patents discovered in 2019 and brought to life in April 2020 via a partnership with Israeli startup Flytrex, which offers drone delivery as a service. The drone company began a pilot program to make deliveries from a Walmart in Grand Forks, North Dakota to about a dozen homes near the store. The company is looking to expand the program to more distant properties while staying in-line with current FAA restrictions regarding line-of-sight piloting.
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