The Drones are Coming

It had to happen, sooner or later: last week Amazon made their first delivery by drone. They’ve been testing the potential of autonomous rotorcraft for more than three years, so it was about time that they started making flying deliveries – it’s something that Santa Claus has been doing since 1821, after all. Let’s be clear, though: the Amazon customer in question lived close to the fulfilment centre, in the wilds of Cambridgeshire. He’s one of exactly two customers who are currently eligible for the service, although Amazon plan to roll the ‘Prime Air’ service out to “dozens” of customers in the future.

They’re wise to experiment in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, where there’s precious little in the way of geography to challenge the algorithm that steers the drone, and relatively few people around who might sue if a drone and its 2.7kg payload fell on them.

Amazon Prime Air drone

Amazon Prime Air – coming soon, to a back garden near you?

As a proof of concept, consider it a genuine milestone. People can now receive manna (well, popcorn) from the heavens. In daylight. When winds are low. When it isn’t raining. Or snowy, or icy, or foggy. Assuming, furthermore, that you don’t live in a place where a cable such as a telephone wire passes over your garden. I suppose that trees and birds might pose a problem, too – not to mention thieves who could try to bring down a drone as a kind of ‘lucky dip’ at its unknown contents.

Avoiding the perils and complexities of aerial navigation, but perhaps more at risk of theft, is the (apparently nameless) robot demonstrated last year by Starship Technologies – a company set up by Skype founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. It operates at street level, toiling along at four miles an hour with up to 18kg of packages on board. It’s not intended to make long-distance deliveries, but to cover the final mile after a ‘portable warehouse’ is stocked up and then parked in your neighbourhood… for a claimed $1 per delivery (which is to say around a fifteenth of the cost of a person in a van).

Unlike the Amazon drone, which drops off its package and immediately heads home, Starship Technologies appear to have designed their drone as a mobile box that opens when it meets the designated recipient. Not so great if you’re not home: the robot doesn’t appear to have a mechanism that would allow it to offload its cargo at your premises.

That a package might be left unattended in my garden is nothing new: the delivery drivers that come to my house already leave my goods in a variety of random places, including the doorstep, any of three wheelie-bins, my neighbour’s garage, my son’s sandpit, and on or under the garden furniture. What happens in high density urban areas, though?

One suggestion is that we should all have a giant mailbox for parcels. Hippo Dropbox, for example: a secure box at your address where a delivery driver places the package inside, and the door locks as soon as it’s closed. (A barcode on the inside of the door can be scanned, this constituting a signature where required.) That’s a neat idea, except that at this time of year I’m sometimes getting five parcel deliveries a day – some of them surprise gifts. I foresee the first driver of the day using the Hippo box, secure in the knowledge that he’s done the right thing… but this leaves the box locked. The high-value item that arrives next can’t go in the box, per the delivery instructions, and the barcode can’t be scanned in lieu of a signature. That item must go back to the depot, journey wasted, perhaps several days running.

While logistics textbooks often discuss the ‘final mile’, it appears that the final few metres might be the toughest of all to crack.

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

One problem that the flying drone must overcome is that a map reference alone does not identify a household, because in many cases people share a building. Where do you drop a parcel, when your customers live in high-rise flats? Bizarrely, if the future is delivery by air, we would be entering a time where the logistics of home shopping become simpler for those in rural areas – but that’s no good because over 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas (according to a 2014 report from the UN, with a rise to 66% by 2050 anticipated).

I’m not anti-drone as such, and using them to deliver packages is probably a better application than bouncing one off the Flying Scotsman, but there are practicalities to consider.

What’s the environmental impact of a drone? It’s clearly going to consume a lot of electricity because those quad-rotor aircraft expend most of their energy simply in staying up, with forward motion being a relatively minor component of the vector. Maybe you can install a solar farm, or claim your electricity comes on a green tariff such as nuclear. Well, maybe… but electricity is a commodity and when you’re using ‘green’ energy for one thing, it means somebody elsewhere is having their needs met with fossil fuels, so I don’t buy that. There’s also the question of noise, and some people might raise safety concerns. Not an issue while the drones are being used experimentally (or as a marketing gimmick), but what if there were thousands of the things buzzing about?

A question that we have to ask ourselves is, do we really need to receive things in such a hurry? Many businesses are still grappling with the implications of next-day delivery, and those who have made that particular leap have in some cases moved on to same-day delivery. Delivery within two hours. Delivery within the hour. And now… what?

I’m concerned because it makes me think of the Stanford marshmallow experiment, where developmental psychologists assess the maturity of a child based on his or her ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward. Children who can’t resist the temptation to have it now are scientifically proven to be more prone to impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, they’re more likely to abuse drugs and other substances, more likely to get divorced, and more likely to be overweight. And now we’re designing logistics systems to respond to the demand for instant gratification. We’re rewarding and reinforcing the idea that clicking the button delivers satisfaction… even though we know that there’s this thing called climate change, that it’s man-made and that it’s accelerating. You can have it now, or you can be ‘green’. Which will you choose?

What a curious age we live in!

On a more worthy note, experiments in Malawi have seen a drone used to transport blood samples to a clinic where HIV testing can be performed. In a country where the roads are bad, sending blood samples via motorcycle courier is expensive, so batching together a large number of samples is the norm. This can result in dangerous delays, with UNICEF reporting that it can take as long as eleven days for blood samples to reach a laboratory. Matternet believe that their drones could be the answer.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

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Faster than a Speeding Bullet

I was doing a bit of teaching recently, and we turned to discussing speed of delivery as a basis for competition. We watched one of the Next TV advertisements where they promise next-day delivery (subject to some fine print) and show off what appears to be a somewhat fictionalised supply chain.

See what you think of the implausibly shiny supply chain, where the chosen dress is apparently untouched by human hands, automatically wrapped on demand before being whisked on its way to the customer along roads that feature no other traffic, just a fleet of modern and clean Next delivery trucks.

Hmm. And yet this is a good strategy for online retail. You can’t really advertise the quality of the fabric, because the buyer can’t touch it. You can’t offer alterations or made-to-measure flexibility, because you can’t touch the customer. So what does that leave? Price-based competition is always going to hurt… so speed is the logical choice. Next day delivery (six days a week, subject to stock and courier availability, as the weasel words at the bottom of the screen explain) is an impressive thing to deliver.

Amazon went one better, and moved towards same-day delivery, in some cities… and then they went better still, if speed is your thing, with ‘Prime Now’, for one-hour delivery.

Stephen Armstrong for the Guardian was unimpressed when he tried ‘Prime Now’ in June 2015, finding the website glitchy and ultimately failing to get the goods. A little over three months later, Steve Myall for the Mirror got a delivery of groceries in 39 minutes. (Regular readers of Capacify might find their hackles rising at Myall’s statement, “Everything was in a paper bag so no environmental concerns.”) There was a minimum spend, and the cost of delivery was £6.99 plus an optional-but-included-as-standard £2 tip for the person making the delivery.

Andrew Hill for the Financial Times drew a valuable historical comparison with Victorian efforts to achieve fast and cheap parcel delivery services in London, concluding that the same factors that caused the London Penny Parcel Delivery and Automatic Advertising Company to disappear without trace are still in force.

Now, there’s always the risk of being proved wrong, but I think that the pursuit of speed has gone about as far as it can go. The logistic control and coordination required for same day delivery are impressive – even amazing – but if ‘within an hour or two’ becomes the new norm, it’s no longer a basis for competition: it’s just a qualifier. That leaves companies with additional expense to recoup, while chasing the same business as everybody else… unless this spells the end of the high street, and the market town.

Beverley, Yorkshire

Does same-day delivery spell the end of the British high street?

Is that a good thing? Is this what citizens want?

Then there’s the big rival: delivery at the speed of light. When I was a teenager, I’d occasionally buy computer games by mail, so as to save money. The first few cheques I wrote were all for mail order computer games, and the advertisements always advised the customer to “allow 28 days for delivery”, which led to a lot of wistful days spent waiting for the postman to come. Nowadays, if I wanted a computer game it would come from an ‘app store’, no disk or postage required. As soon as I click ‘buy’, the download can begin.

Computer game on cassette

Back in the days when it took six minutes to load 48K of data off a cassette, it took up to four weeks to get the cassette in the post.

I told my students that there was once a plan to deliver post by guided missile. That got a laugh, but it’s entirely true. Some research (and this excellent history by Duncan Geere) revealed that rocket mail has actually been attempted quite a few times, over the years. There were proposals to use artillery for postal delivery as early as 1810, and later in the century Congreve rockets were used in an experimental postal application in Tonga, although the residents ultimately floated their post on the sea instead (just as the people of St Kilda did). Then there was Herman Oberth (1894 – 1989) the rocket enthusiast who advocated rocket mail from 1927. Countries experimenting with rockets for post in the 1930s included Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, India and the United States.

This business of pyrotechnic postage appears to have been common enough to give us a new word: astrophilately, meaning stamp-collecting relating to post that has travelled via rockets and missiles. Honestly!

Cover flown on space shuttle mission STS-8 and sold to the public after landing.

Astrophilately. All the cool kids are doing it.

This was in no way a precursor to the web-based e-mail called ‘RocketMail’, originating in 1996 and subsequently bought out by the ill-fated Yahoo, although perhaps with rocketmail.com they were trying to achieve a blend of retro-cool and futuristic.

Meanwhile, things had got serious. In June 1959, a Regulus cruise missile containing mail in place of a warhead was launched by a Navy submarine, the USS Barbero. US Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield witnessed its arrival, commenting: “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

Let’s not smirk too much at the Postmaster General: we have the unfair advantage of hindsight – and it was nice to see a cruise missile employed in such a ‘swords to ploughshares’ fashion: for the next five years, the Regulus missiles carried by the USS Barbero and her sisters constituted the US Navy’s nuclear deterrent force.

Regulus cruise missile launch

USS Barbero’s twin, the USS Tunny, launching a Regulus cruise missile. The Navy called their first and only postal experiment ‘Missile Mail’.

One organisation that needs a different kind of missile mail is NATO: a Hellfire missile that had been employed during a recent training exercise in Spain was due to be returned to Florida via Paris Charles de Gaulle… where they mistakenly loaded it on an Air France flight to Havana, Cuba. If you’ve ever felt that sinking sensation when your ball goes over the fence and you realise you’re going to have to go next-door and ask the grumpy old man if you can have it back, you will sympathise with the United States military.

Ultimately, it may be that Missile Mail was impractical for the same reason that Concorde never caught on: not because there was no need for something that quick, but because it wasn’t fast enough when compared to the speed of light: telexes, e-mail, telephone and videoconferencing, instead of physical post and physical presence.

Yet Amazon, and others, are said to be experimenting with delivery by drones: pilotless machines that rely upon much the same guidance technology as missiles. Perhaps, once again, “we stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

And you know how well that worked out, last time.