Of Drones and Men

Of Drones and Men

At the Ecole Polytechnique Féderale de Lausanne (EPFL) Afrotech is testing Africa for the first ever drone daily sky-highway: by the end of 2016, unmanned robots, painted in bright colours to look “friendly” and not inspire fear in the shepherds below, will deliver blood units to remote villages scattered over a stretch of 80 miles.

It’s a riveting vision: the skies over jungles and savannahs, where electricity is a luxury and running water a dream, one day will be crisscrossed by flying “angels”, machines that, for once, bring life and not war.

That’s feasible mainly because between one village and the other there are no roads, no air traffic, and no one on the ground to be injured or killed in case of malfunction.

Another matter entirely is the use of drones for commercial delivery purposes in the cities of the USA and Europe.

“Drone” has become a buzzword, a totemic item that fills speeches and articles all over the logistic community. Is it the possible key to solving the Last Mile riddle?

The idea, in itself, stimulates the wildest fantasies: metropolis’ whose air traffic resembles Blade Runner’s, with goods delivered straight to your roof and the nocturnal skyline dotted by hundreds of led lights, silently flying with GPS precision.

The truth is very different. As we read on Nasdaq.com “the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires commercial drone operators to obtain a waiver from the agency. The FAA has granted many of these waivers (known as Section 333 exemptions), but even with them, drone use is still strictly controlled. Drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, operate only in the daytime and in good weather, and, most significantly, stay in the line of sight of the pilot operating it”. Senate Bill 142restricts the flight of unmanned aerial vehicles under 350 feet above properties in California without the permission of those property owners or legal entities. And that’s just one State. The drones wouldn’t be capable of delivering weighty, large or oddly shaped packages.

So: Amazon Air’s dream, with it’s secret testing sites in Washington State, may be more of a stunt than an incoming reality. Imagine someone trying to hover the thing in front of your doorstep without scaring pets, chopping plants, crashing on your roof or slicing someone’s hair. And, by the way, how the heck does the thing ring your doorbell?

Another raging solution is to “uberize”deliveries: let the people do the work, fill the gaps, and rely on the commuters day by day routes and willingness to become a clog of the delivery machine.

This is a democratic and price-friendly solution but it’s open to all the uncertainties of traffic, personal commitment, and unexpected events that involve the private sphere of the driver, who, let’s remember, is not an employee.

A cadre of other techniques is taking shape all over the globe: among the blinding lights of Tokyo’s Shibuya district, Rakuten, in typical Japanese single-minded fashion, has trucks loaded with 450 possible shopping items on standby 24/7, ready to reach the customer in 20 minutes.

H.G. Welles would have suggested to link your living room via a Pneumatic Tube directly to Amazon’s warehouse: press and get, in real-time.

The truth is that, right now, the only way to bring goods to the Shopper’s houses as fast as they would like is to make them pay more. It is paramount to offer a wide range of delivery options, all of them built around the end user’s needs: to serve those who want an express, premium service and those who wish to save money and wait a little longer. The logistics to achieve these goals are already in place, they just have to be capitalized. Good fleet management, new pricing engines that adapt to customized deliveries options, constant communication with the end-user: these elements, trivial as they seem, can make an enormous difference.

A drone can’t help an old lady to bring her gift upstairs. A driver who has three more minutes per delivery can. A son who’s there not only because he knew the exact time of delivery, but because he did set it accordingly to his work schedule, well: he can help too. We should use science to make the human factor win.

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