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Big Ideas

Will Delivery Drones Ever Fill the Skies?

by Minda Zetlin

February 2016

Amazon has made countless headlines with its promise to begin delivery of packages by drone and its more recent release of an actual commercial for its drone program, called “Prime Air.” But a commercial is one thing; actually offering a service is quite another. (Amazon did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

The idea of a package being dropped by a drone onto a special Amazon mat in the backyard might seem enticing to some consumers. And although the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to issue regulations that could govern commercial drones, regulators took the first small step in that direction by announcing that owners could begin registering commercial drones this spring.

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Still, most experts doubt that drone delivery will be anything more than a novelty anytime soon. The dream of drone delivery was that it would address the “last-mile problem” in logistics—the cost of transporting an item from a local distribution center to the recipient’s actual address. That last mile takes up a disproportionate piece of the entire cost of shipping. But most drones small enough to land in a backyard or on a balcony can’t carry much weight—Amazon’s Prime Air will only transport 5 pounds, for example. So the only way drones could make a dent in last-mile costs would be if there were quite a lot of them. And most observers foresee fierce public resistance to large numbers of drones constantly swarming about.

In the near term, robotics and machine learning will likely have a more immediate impact on logistics than drones. And, before drones ever become much of a factor, the logistics industry may become the first big adopter of self-driving vehicles, especially given the worsening shortage of human truck drivers.

Amazon’s announcements about drones might even be a deliberate distraction, according to Diego Pantoja-Navajas, CEO of LogFire, a cloud-based provider of supply chain fulfillment solutions headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. “Amazon is getting its competitors thinking about drones while they’re achieving faster shipping times and doing other things that have more of an impact,” he
says.

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