By Jeremiah Owyang, with co-contributor Ryan Brinks
Drones come in many shapes and sizes, and are coming to a front door near you. Retail, logistics, and the way we shop and consume will never be the same.
We call this trend the “Autonomous World” when robots are able to augment, supplant and replace human workers at greater efficiency. It’s happening in all walks of life, industries and sectors, but the one area that will be most impacted will be the retail and logistics space. Earlier this month, I was a keynote at Etail, where over a thousand retailers were present to learn about how on-demand workers and autonomous drones will impact their business models.
Just three years ago, the thought of delivering packages by drone was a fantastical idea. Today, it is one of the leading obsessions of the tech world, and a future where drones fill the streets and skies now seems inevitable. When that day eventually arrives, it will no doubt change the retail business forever. An estimate from the former White House administration forecast the potential for an $82 billion American commercial drone industry with as many as 100,000 new jobs by the year 2025.
Here are 10 delivery drones that are likely candidates to help companies get there:
- Domino’s Robotics Unit
- Domino’s is not betting exclusively on either air or ground; if its flying drone venture with Flirtey doesn’t take off (below), it still has its wheeled DRU, the Domino’s Robotics Unit, in tests on the streets of Queensland, Australia. The 3-foot-tall carrier for up to 10 pizzas keeps them hot — and a few beverages cool too — while speeding along at nearly 12.5 mph. DRU is built by Marathon Robotics, better known for its robotic military targets. Domino’s as a whole produced $2.2 billion in revenue throughout 2016.
- Amazon’s Drone
Much closer to reality is Amazon’s delivery drone itself, which successfully delivered its first order of popcorn and a Fire TV stick to a rural customer near Cambridge, England, in December. The drone is designed to fly under 400 feet with packages that weigh 5 pounds or less within a 10-mile radius of a fulfillment center, enabling deliveries to be made in less than 30 minutes.
Amazon first announced its pursuit of drone technology in December 2013, and with 341,400 employees and $136 billion in 2016 revenue, it is an undisputed leader in the race to deploy retail delivery drones.
While lesser known than the eCommerce giant it’s competing against, Nevada startup Flirtey beat Amazon to the record books by completing the first government-approved test delivery in March 2016, and the drone that can carry up to 5.5 pounds for a 10-mile round trip further tested 77 deliveries from a 7-Eleven in Reno before the year was out. Unlike Amazon’s drone, Flirtey designed its deliveries to be dropped from a cable while hovering 40 to 50 feet above the ground. The startup has raised $15.8 million and, in addition to 7-Eleven, has also partnered with pizza delivery giant Domino’s for development.
- UPS and the Workhorse Group
No stranger to the intricacies of delivering packages, UPS has driven to the forefront of the drone scene with its deployment of an electric delivery truck equipped with a drone dock on its roof. Its ubiquitous brown trucks have made news in September 2016, when it teamed up with a CyPhy Works drone to make a package delivery to an island near Boston, and again in February when a partner HorseFly UAV lifted off and delivered a package in Florida.
A lot is at stake for UPS; in addition to its standard-setting role in the delivery industry, the company projects that it could save as much as $50 million a year by shaving just one mile off each of its drivers’ routes every day. UPS employs more than 434,000 people and generated $61 billion in 2016.
The HorseFly is an eight-rotor drone developed by the Workhorse Group of Ohio last year, and it can carry up to 10 pounds for a 30-minute flight. As soon as it returns to its truck-top dock, its battery automatically recharges.
- Mercedes-Benz and Matternet
As would be expected, luxury car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz is upgrading the UPS vision with a drone delivery van concept of its own. This one features a stylish self-driving electric van with a fully automated cargo space and rooftop drone hatch, making the entire process fully autonomous. Mercedes-Benz has designed the van with a 168-mile range and backed drone startup Matternet with a five-year, $562 million investment back in September. Matternet had reported $13 million in funding at the time of the Mercedes partnership. Its drone can carry up to 4.4 pounds and fly 12 miles per charge. The automaker anticipates testing throughout 2017. Mercedes-Benz employs 140,000 and generated revenues of $94 billion last year.
- Ford’s Autolivery
Legacy automaker Ford isn’t about to pass on the delivery drone opportunity, either. Though lagging behind UPS and Mercedes-Benz in development, Ford recently unveiled its Autolivery service concept with virtual reality headsets at the Mobile World Congress. Married to Ford’s push for fully autonomous vehicles by 2021, Autolivery envisions self-driving electric vans equipped with flying drones for curb-to-door navigation and even skyscraper window delivery. Ford generated $152 billion in revenue last year.
- Self-Driving Delivery Trucks
Mercedes-Benz and Ford aren’t the only companies in hot pursuit of a self-driving retail disruption. Overseas, Charge has designed a self-driving electric delivery van that it says could be ready for use yet this year — and priced competitively with conventional vans. The Oxfordshire, England, startup has been backed by $500 million venture capital firm Kinetik since late 2015. Charge’s lightweight frame can be built by a single person in just four hours, giving the company an initial production capacity of 10,000 trucks per year with just 10 workers on two daily shifts. The electric vehicles are autonomous-ready and emit no emissions over their first 100 miles. A dual mode can extend that range to 500 miles.
In the United States, the retail industry’s interest in self-driving vehicles has focused on larger distribution trucks, and while leading names like Otto and Embark have made headlines with self-driving technology for highway driving, Starsky Robotics has put together a self-driving truck that also boasts of having remote-controlled last mile navigation. Its aftermarket retrofit kit can turn any big rig into an autonomous vehicle remotely monitored by a driver who can instruct the onboard robotics to physically push the pedals, turn the steering wheel and change gears. These remote drivers can keep an eye on and intervene for 10 to 30 trucks at a time. The San Francisco startup with $3.75 million in funding debuted a successful test in February that featured autonomous driving for 120 miles and remote guidance for 20 miles.
- Starship Technologies
Moving even closer to home is Starship Technologies, which has created a wheeled sidewalk drone for small deliveries across town, I visited them at their Redwood City location and test drove their unit. Spawned from a 2014 NASA robot contest by a pair of Skype innovators, the delivery bot can send up to 40 pounds of goods out into the neighborhood and reach its destination within a 3-mile radius in 5 to 30 minutes by traveling at pedestrian speed.
Headquartered in London and engineered in Estonia, Starship just garnered $17.2 million in funding this January and has already inked partnerships in the United States with DoorDash and Postmates, as well as deals in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and Estonia with Just Eat, Hermes Parcel Delivery, Media Markt, Swiss Post and Wolt.
- Carry by Dispatch
Another leading contender in the neighborhood delivery race is Carry, a 3-cubic-foot delivery bot that stands 3 feet tall and sports four storage compartments that can hold a total of 100 pounds. While it travels at the same pedestrian speed of 2 to 4.5 mph, Carry is only limited in range by its 12-hour lithium-ion battery. Its compartments are unlocked by an app.
Carry’s $2 million South San Francisco startup, called Dispatch, is testing the bot out on the campuses of Menlo College and CSU Monterey Bay. Dispatch, backed in April 2016 by Andreessen Horowitz and Precursor Ventures, plans to sell access to Carry, not the drones themselves.
10) Amazon’s Flying Warehouse
- One of the most widely anticipated concepts for the future of retail delivery is Amazon’s vision of drones literally raining down to Earth from a massive blimp-style flying warehouse. Patented in April 2016, this airborne fulfillment center would house a vast store of popular Amazon products some 45,000 feet in the air and release small drones to glide nearly energy-free to their destination. Upon delivery, the drones would then fly to a nearby collection site to await a return trip to the flying warehouse.Amazon also attained a February patent for an alternate delivery method from its flying warehouse: parachutes instead of drones. And another patent theorizes a system of light poles capable of recharging or docking drones.While the challenges that stand in the way of such visions are daunting, they have nonetheless inspired many to dream outside the box.
Challenges Facing Delivery Drones
Despite the prevalence of successful drone tests across the country and world, the real roadblock to a drone-filled future for the retail industry is government regulation. Regulatory frameworks are lacking and commercial drone rules are stifling. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits drones from flying higher than 400 feet, at night, over human heads and outside their pilots’ line of sight.
Better rules have been proposed, but that process is moving slowly. A government committee recommended standards for drone flights to the FAA in April 2016, and Congress ordered the FAA to create new regulations that would allow for commercial drone delivery by 2018. The new Trump administration, however, has thrown a curveball into that progress via an executive order requiring two federal regulations to be rescinded for every new one passed.
Meanwhile, other workarounds are also being proposed. A D.C. bill to allow personal delivery devices has been introduced, and Virginia was the first state to pass legislation allowing delivery robots to operate on sidewalks and crosswalks across the state. That law, drafted with the help of Starship Technologies, goes into effect on July 1. Similar legislation has been proposed in Idaho and Florida.
Besides airspace concerns, costs and energy usage constraints — particularly in the collection of deployed drones — have hampered drone development.
But with so many players now in the game, viable solutions are bound to find their way to customers’ doors in the near future.