Feature: How drones and electric robovans will transform last-mile deliveries

14 June 2017

With a massive upturn in online shopping and the resultant boom in van sales, same-day delivery is now something that’s expected in a number of industries, especially fresh food and drink.

It’s a tough business though, and delivery companies are often left exposed, particularly with last-mile deliveries where pedestrianised access, private roads and height and weight restrictions provide barriers that can cause havoc with schedules.

And that’s where technology comes in, with drones and robovans set to shake up the most difficult part of the logistics funnel to predict.

Amazon’s drone trials, for example, have been well publicised. The company made its first UK delivery by drone to a customer in Cambridge in December 2016, as part of its Prime Air project to deliver packages of up to 2.7kg within 30 minutes of an order being placed. The drones are completely autonomous, fly at less than 400 feet and make their way to their destinations via GPS.

It may be the most well known example, but the internet retail giant is far from alone. US firm Workhorse Group has developed an electric van with a drone installed in its cargo area, with the van acting as a mobile warehouse that the drone travels to and from, making deliveries of small parcels. At the more industrial end of the scale, JD.com, one of China’s largest online retailers, has announced plans to develop a drone capable of carrying a tonne of cargo for deliveries to remote parts of the country.

“The first [large-scale] applications will be – guess what? Military,” explains Steve Wright, Senior Lecturer in Avionics and Aircraft Systems at the University of the West of England. “It’s no secret, because government has an organisation called the Defence and Security Accelerator. One of the [online and public] competitions they’re running at the moment is using equipment like this to deliver supplies to troops who are actually fighting on a front line. And the reason for that [early adoption] is it’s kind of a sweet spot, because in a military environment, the safety and regulatory requirements are much more relaxed.”

Theoretically, there’s no reason why drones couldn’t perform near identical tasks for delivery and logistics companies on a large-scale basis today. The stumbling block isn’t the technology, but the paperwork, as drones have to prove themselves safe and reliable enough to interact with society and get the go-ahead from safety authorities. Fears over collisions with aircraft – and several near misses with recreational models – haven’t helped their cause.

“The technology is ready to do it – it’s about the environment it’s got to operate in,” adds Wright. “Typically, if I send a drone to do a mission, it’s probably 90% likely it’ll finish it, which is pretty cool from a technological point of view. But from a safety point of view, it’s not good enough.

“The sorts of safety numbers that we, as the west, are used to aren’t 99% – call that two nines – it’s up to nine nines. In other words, there needs to be only a one-in-a-billion chance of [the drone] causing a catastrophic accident.”

Those odds haven’t deterred the delivery industry though; trials are still happening, data is being gathered and, so far, there are yet to be reports of anything going seriously wrong.

“There’s a resounding silence in terms of accidents, but the tricky bit is proving that they’ve achieved reliability,” says Wright. “At the moment, they’re pottering around, delivering parcels to test subjects and things like that, but most of the work that Amazon will be doing now is all about proving to the regulatory authorities that their systems are safe [and] they’ve got to demonstrate it.

Once the technology’s safety is approved, the challenge of increasing battery performance must then be tackled.

“With a typical drone, it’s very hard to make it fly for more than an hour; generally more than half an hour is quite tough, so that obviously translates into ‘how far away from the mother vehicle could we get?’”

Still, the logistics industry persists. Late last year, Amazon patented a design for a gigantic, airborne warehouse to cradle cargo high above towns and cities, and dispatch much smaller drones to for the last-mile deliveries. It’s pie in the sky to say the least, but shows how serious the industry is about literally getting the technology off the ground.

Wright thinks the reality of drones tackling last-mile deliveries in a serious commercial capacity is roughly 20 years away, and reckons the B2B market is in for the biggest impact: “I think where the difference will really be is in the business-to-business market, where you’ve got a business that needs a piece of equipment – things like medical supplies – where suddenly, hours matter, and hours will make huge cost differences.”

Back on terra firma, autonomous vans are also attempting to prove themselves viable as last-mile delivery devices in the UK. Online supermarket Ocado is already trialling self-driving vans for grocery deliveries, and in September 2016, Mercedes revealed plans to develop a Robovan concept in conjunction with Starship Technologies.

This involves a ‘mother ship’ Sprinter van with eight miniature Robovans in its cargo bay, each capable of autonomously delivering small parcels via pavements and footpaths, as well as its 2016 ‘Vision Van’ concept, which contains rooftop-mounted drones that can effectively deliver those last mile requirements with the van getting close enough to the final destination for battery range not to be an issue.

The technology is solid enough and developing at a pace, so if anything, we’re likely to see autonomous vans put to work sooner than anything airborne. “I think we’re no more than 10 years away from the ground-based stuff,” says Wright, a decade earlier than his viable commercial drone prediction.