Are drones really the future of parcel delivery?

The e-retail sector is an extremely busy place, with businesses both big and small constantly fighting for the attention of bargain-hungry consumers. The key to success here is ensuring maximum convenience - shoppers want their products as quickly as possible, and for the lowest price.

Some retailers are going to extraordinary lengths to make this happen, and we don't mean by offering Saturday deliveries. It's been widely publicised that one or two companies have started trialling drone deliveries. Is this a true sign of what's to come, or just some kind of sci-fi pipe dream?

What is a delivery drone?

Simply speaking, delivery drones are remote-controlled plane- and helicopter-like vehicles capable of carrying anything from food packages and water to books and DVDs, all with minimal human involvement. They're officially regarded as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

While drones have existed for a number of years already, we've only just started to see examples of businesses and individuals exploring their full potential. Google, for instance, recently touted them as a way to deliver aid after natural disasters. They're even being used by criminals, with a number of prisons across the UK and US saying they've intercepted contraband-smuggling drones.

It's the idea of delivering online orders to normal shoppers that has peaked most people's interest, though. This is a concept that Amazon hopes to pioneer with its 'Prime Air' service.

The benefits

Prime Air hasn't actually been launched just yet, largely because Amazon is yet to obtain any governmental green lights. It does, however, claim that the drones will eventually allow it to deliver packages within half an hour of them being ordered. This is quicker than any of the current options, unless of course you count actually going to a shop.

Removing the human element - or minimising it at the very least - should help retailers and delivery companies to save money, as they won't have to pay for drivers, conventional vehicles or fuel. These savings can then be passed on to customers. It's also a much more environmentally friendly approach, as the drones are powered by electricity.

Obvious obstacles

As mentioned, the rolling out of such services depends on regulatory approval. The US Federal Aviation Administration appears to be coming round to the idea of commercialised drones, and Europe's equivalent - the European Aviation Safety Agency - is encouraging their use, but there's still a lot of red tape that businesses will need to overcome.

On top of this, drones have their limits. Amazon claims its own vehicles will carry anything weighing 2.3kg or less. If you want to transport anything heavier, you'll need to revert to more conventional methods. Plus, there's always the concern about drones getting lost or intercepted en-route.

It's clear that drones have potential, and with the amount of money being invested in the relevant technologies, they could well have a part to play in the future of parcel delivery. At present, though, the concept is very much in its early days. Without the proper regulatory support, and the acceptance of privacy-concerned consumers, it's safe to say that drones won't be taking over from our trusty delivery drivers just yet.

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