Drones – to deliver or not?

April 20, 2017 9:48 am Published by

In December, viewers were glued to their screens as an elderly man awaited the
arrival of an Amazon delivery. This, though, was no ordinary delivery. For the
retail giant, it was the first of a kind: Amazon’s foray into unmanned aerial
vehicles (UVAs), or drones to you and me, had begun.

Subsequent months have seen little proliferation of the ‘disruptive technology’. In
fact, the event stands as a one-off. Amazon, as does other firms, has many questions
remaining over the true benefit offered by UAVs, and countless surveys have been
conducted on the feasibility of wider roll out.

But what lingers in the air is the desire to be the first. This need fueled Irish
same-day delivery firm Pony Express to conduct its own far less bombastic trial –
no cameras, just a muted press release that explained the reasoning behind the test

We want to be at the leading edge of the industry so we pushed ahead to conduct the
first delivery by drone in Ireland, so we’ll have a head start should the regulation
be changed,” says a Pony Express spokesperson.

The two-minute delivery flight to a 24ft boat, 200 metres off the Dun Laoghaire shore
was conducted by a DJ Inspire 1 drone. It carted 250g of medical suppliers,
including an emergency thermal blanket, an epi-pen, bandages, plasters, thermometer,
first aid leaflet, gloves, wipes and burns dressings.

Despite a successful flight, the spokesperson lists multiple reasons – namely
concerns about safety to both the public and the product – that have hampered a wider
uptake in drones, worries which also include payload capability; obstacle avoidance
technology; and regulations.

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has such strict restrictions surrounding drone
flights in Ireland, ha it wouldn’t be feasible to provide such a service a present,”
says the spokesperson. Director of safety regulation at the IAA, Ralph James, says
hte operation’s success, which met all regulatory requirements, delighted the
“The application of drone technology is vast and the IAA will continue to foster,
promote and encourage its use, with the emphasis always on safety,” he says.

Audrey Browne, operations manager of Pony Express, says drones would not work for its
core business – inner-city same-day services – due to the high possibility of
interception, loss or damage.
“When parcel delivery by drone can be proven to work safely in an urban context,
then we will re-evaluate the situation, but for now we will continue offering parcel
delivery by our traditional methods of bicycles, motorbikes, vans, and trucks,” says

The firm also released result of a survey that, while providing a broadly positive
outlook on drones, showed just 51 per cent of respondents (Pony Express clients) felt
UAVs could work in the courier sector, with a further 12 per cent unsure, based on
lack of knowledge. And 25 per cent believed drones were incapable of safely delivery
their parcels.

Commercial director of Embassy Freight Service, Mark Hall, believes that present
laws and regulations restrict the use of drones far too much for forwarders to
really pay attention to the technology.
“At this stage I only see them as useful in the B2C sector of e-commerce in final
mile delivery,” he says. “The law restricts their use near an airport, so the
advantages gained are only really on offer for distribution centres and consumers
located away from restricted areas.”

But a spokesperson for Pony Express adds that forwarders should watch the market
nevertheless. “If it’s the future, then everyone needs to keep themselves informed
of changes in technology and in their market.” But the spokesperson conceded that
without improvements in battery life or greater availability in docking facilities,
drones offered little hope for longer distance deliveries.

However, Kenya’s Astral Aviation, which has launched its own, dedicated drone
service, Astral Aerial Solutions (AAS), has different ideas. Chief executive Sanjeev
Gadhia hopes this will form he basis of Kenya’s and Africa’s largest drone operator
– once regulations have been ratified.

We have a 2,000kg payload drone that can travel up to 1,200km, and we hope this
can help solve the logistics challenge of transporting cargo to remote areas with
not infrastructure to accommodate manned cargo planes,” says Gadhia. “We shall be
involved in air transport of cargo and humanitarian relief aid, medical supplies
deliveries, oil and gas applications, with other applications including energy and
utilities inspections, aerial mapping, aerial surveillance, and security, among
other things.”

As for the benefits they could offer forwarders, Gadhia believes that drones will
change the logistics and supply chain industry, noting that previous concerns over
their ability to transport large and heavy cargo had been overcome by developments
in technology. “Cargo drones will bring about quick delivery of cargo to remote
areas with inadequate transport infrastructure,” he says. “Forwarders using drones
will have a competitive advantage of meeting the customer’s expectations of quicker
and more flexible delivery because drones will greatly reduce the time taken b
goods to reach the customer.

These drones are also cost effective and easily deployable compared to manned
aircraft.” Furthermore, Gadhia believes they can also increase supply chain
visibility. “Drones can also be used to track movement of assets and goods,” he
says. “High value goods require continuous surveillance during transit and drones
are best placed to provide this. Another advantage would be in space management;
for instance, by surveying movement in one site, one can divert cargo to an alternate
site. “This helps to save time.”

However, a poll conducted by Pony Express’ sister company FDS Worldwide was a little
less enamoured with drone capabilities. FDS Worldwide staff were asked whether they
could foresee cross-border deliveries (Ireland to England for example): but none of
the staff thought it would be effective other than for last mile deliveries.
“Currently the only way to get longer flying time is to carry larger, heavier
batteries, hence limiting the amount you can carry,” says the spokesperson. “Also in
the test we performed, the heavier he package, the quicker he battery runs out.”


~ Source: Voice of the Independent, February 2017. No.062

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This post was written by Ilse Venter