Twenty years ago, if somebody suggested that a private company would fly humans to Mars, you’d probably say “you’re crazy.” Today, you’d be crazy to bet against SpaceX. And while twenty years ago self-driving cars seemed like an impossibility, today it’s clear that the technology exists to get rid of drivers altogether.
As the once-considered crazy ideas started to become technically feasible, the discussion shifted to market demand for these new innovations. Is anyone really going to want that?
Today, we know that there is near-limitless hunger for new, high-tech products and services that make it easier for people to travel, to communicate, and to learn, which leaves the remaining question: how do you get society-at-large comfortable with the new technology, understanding the potential, and comfortable with the risks?
With new technology, educating the public is usually the first step, but you also need to show the value it brings across different industries—from automating delivery to removing workplace hazards. Drones, for example, are the type of game-changing technology that offers endless possibilities—both economically and to society in everyday life, across myriad verticals.
While drones have been around for more than 15 years, there’s still a lot to be worked out before we open the skies to drones en masse. The public still has concerns about how drones might infringe upon their privacy, security, or safety, but that’s why it’s important to provide examples of how drones are already operating safely every day.
Last-mile delivery takes flight
The retail industry is the perfect example of a space that has grown in several ways but still needs further development, particularly in delivery. It is constantly evolving and expanding its distributed delivery network thanks to eCommerce. Twenty years ago, fulfilling online orders wasn’t what it is today—a retailer may only have one physical location, but a strong online business and a following with customers all over the world.
That’s where drones come in. Decentralized customer bases, a distributed supply chain, and the demand for fast delivery have disrupted the transportation industry. There’s only so much that can fit in a small UPS truck. Traditional retailers and fast-growing eCommerce operations need a level of agility that can’t be fully met by traditional modes of transportation.
Unlike the two-dimensional roadways in use now, drones work in three-dimensions and can easily be used to move supplies at different points in the supply chain—from a central distribution center (DC) to regional locations and/or from regional DCs to customers’ doorsteps (or rooftops)—more quickly and efficiently.
In order to make that future a reality, the drone industry is collaborating at local and national levels to ease public concerns about drone flights over populated areas. More large-scale drone operations will take place in rural areas before moving into urban settings.
Additionally, demonstrating the capacity for safe flights is key to navigating city structures and the higher volume of traffic. That’s why the development of remote identification of drone operators is key.
It will enable highly automated or even fully autonomous drone operations. Ultimately, an operator on the ground will be able to manage 100 or even 1,000 drones at a time, potentially fulfilling hundreds of deliveries in as little as a few hours, illustrating the immense value drones can bring to the retail industry.
Enabling change beyond commerce
Enormous benefits await us once we solve the challenge of regulating drones. Beyond retail, delivering emergency healthcare supplies, like blood and medicine, to remote communities and hard-to-reach patients will be possible much more quickly. Retailers will be able to bypass major shipping carriers and handle more of their own logistics. Congested cities will see less traffic on the roads. And just as individuals have access to almost any information on the internet, they will soon have access to almost any of their stuff—it could be as simple as sending a drone to retrieve the wallet you forgot at home.
Maybe it sounds far-fetched, but we’ve learned by now not to doubt the big ideas. Drones are the future of transportation and we’re just getting started.
Tell Us More
What’s one piece of advice you’d give that you’d follow?
I don't know anything about succeeding in retail and I don't plan to learn, so I guess the one piece of advice I would give that I would actually follow is to not get into the business if you don't know anything about it.
What’s something we, as an industry, aren’t talking about that we should be?
Is the industry talking enough about the effect of decentralized retail on the environment? As a lay observer and consumer, I rarely hear or see anything calculating the environmental impact of packaging and transport differences between traditional brick-and-mortar retail and eCommerce.
What’s a product that you now buy online but thought you never would?
At one point in my life, I never conceived of buying anything online, so I suppose that everything I now buy online I once thought I never would.
What’s a product that you now don’t think you’ll ever buy online?
You’re a new addition to a crayon box. What color are you?
Sky Blue. It just feels very optimistic.