UAVs Implications in Logistics – Part I
After taking a broad look at use cases from a range of different industries, this report now examines implications for the logistics industry. While many of the above applications are already common today, the use cases in and for logistics are still in its early stages. The use cases illustrated below must therefore be seen as visionary; the intention is to provide inspiration and trigger discussion.
These logistics use cases are not intended as a precise prediction of future developments. As previously mentioned, electrical multicopters (characterized by vertical take-off and landing) appear to be the most promising for the logistics industry. Accordingly we focus on use cases within short distances instead of considering long distance operations. DHL Trend Research divides logistics industry use cases into four categories: Urban First and Last-Mile, Rural Delivery, Surveillance of Infrastructure, and Intralogistics.
1.1 Urban First and Last Mile
Rapid urbanization is one of the megatrends of recent years and the near future, especially in emerging markets. The insurance company Swiss Re forecasts the global urban population will “grow by about 1.4 billion to 5 billion between 2011 and 2030, with 90% of the increase coming in the emerging markets”.
Negative implications of this trend include congested roads, pollution, and decreased efficiency caused by delays in the flow of people and goods. It is often difficult for city planners to keep up with the pace of urbanization and population growth. In many cases, infrastructure projects can only provide temporary relief.
Part of the problem is urban first and last mile delivery, and demand for this is likely to increase as e-commerce volumes grow. China posted an impressive compound annual growth rate of 120% between 2003 and 2011 for its e-tailing market (consumer-facing e-commerce transactions excluding financial services, job search, and travel) and, even if growth rates are likely to come down, future increases will still be substantial.
UAVs could provide major relief for inner cities, taking traffic off the roads and into the skies. So far, payloads are limited but a network of UAVs could nevertheless support first and last-mile logistics networks. For instance, aerial delivery company Flirtey plans to introduce the worlds -first commercial UAVs for delivery. Student text book rental service Zookal will use Flirtey to deliver parcels directly to a customer.
Customers will receive a smartphone notification that will enable them to track the parcel via GPS, and receive the parcel directly at an outdoor location. Once the UAV arrives at the outdoor delivery destination, it hovers and carefully lowers the parcel through a delivery mechanism that is attached to a retractable cord. This aims to significantly reduce waiting times from two to three days, to as little as two to three minutes.
An airborne first and last-mile network could look as follows: Shipments that arrive from outside the city limits are sorted at existing facilities (hubs, warehouses, crossdocking sites), and shipments meeting certain criteria are separated automatically. In addition to size, weight, and time criticalness, these criteria could also include dynamic metrics (e.g., current road conditions, air pollution, and network load). Each UAV automatically picks up assigned shipment(s) from a conveyer belt and takes off. On its way back to the hub, the UAV could carry out point-to-point deliveries that lie on its route.