Amazon drone delivery may point the way to more sensible logistics automation

It is hard to know if Amazon should be taken seriously in its proposal to deliver packages by drone-helicopter. In a short press release yesterday, Monday (2/12), the internet retailer outlined its “Prime Air” concept, the objective of which is to “get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles”. The press release included a short video of the process of a package being picked and packed from the warehouse, loaded onto the drone and delivered to a house. The statement asserts that “from a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place”, something it estimates will take place in 2015.

What Amazon appears to be attempting to invent are new processes for the rapid delivery of items and, in the spirit of innovation that Silicon Valley appropriates to itself; it has sought to use the newest of technologies to solve the problem.

None-the -less the solution does appear somewhat extravagant. The cost of ‘drone’ aircraft may be quite low, however the sort of technology needed to navigate crowded urban skies may not be so cheap. Nor does the solution of a dedicated vehicle for each delivery appear particularly attractive. Certainly any delivery network with a moderately dense depot presence could be able to establish a responsive service but it would seem likely that the sort of large distribution centres that Amazon operates would require a substantial fleet of drones travelling long distances to service customers directly.

What is worth taking notice of is the potential of related technologies for logistics systems. For example the new London Gateway port will exploit the increased autonomy of vehicles to implement a dramatically higher level of automation for its container handling capabilities. Similarly the latent ‘self-drive’ abilities of new models of motor vehicles have the potential to increase productivity for trucks and light commercial vehicles. These are existing technologies not science fiction and they possibly have greater potential than drone helicopters.