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UAVs Implications in Logistics – Part II

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1.2 Rural Delivery

The potential of UAV technology is also evident in rural locations with poor infrastructure or challenging geographic conditions. George Barbastathis of the Harvard- MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology initiated research into UAVs “to swiftly Implications in Logistics transport vaccines to rural locations and alleviate first and last-mile delivery problems and improve cost, quality, and coverage of vaccine supplies.”

For the logistics industry, rural delivery by UAV is attractive not only in emergency applications because low-volume remote locations represent a costly part of standard networks. Furthermore, they typically require a non-standard infrastructure tailored to regional specifics (e.g., mountainous settings or island delivery).

For remote island locations, a conceivable use case is the delivery of parcels to near-shore islands, either replacing an existing (and complex) process involving cars, boats, and postal workers, or providing new, additional services. These could be off-peak delivery services originating from the mainland or specific express services (e.g., for pharmaceutical delivery).

In recent news, Google has revealed its latest program called Project Wing to build autonomous delivery systems capable of bringing parcels to nearly every person within one to two minutes. Google has been working on Project Wing for more than two years and it is already currently testing UAVs for rural deliveries in Queensland, Australia.

However, Google recognizes that the project is far away from actually being ready for any sort of commercial or governmental use especially for UAV delivery in urban areas. “It‘s years from a product,” explained Google Project Wing founder Nicholas Roy. “But it is sort of the first prototype we can stand upon.” The obstacles Google will have to clear will go far beyond engineering. As previously mentioned rival Amazon floated its own aerial delivery service earlier this year and the UAV delivery project was quickly subdued in the US by the FAA.

To gain valuable insight into a comparable application, Deutsche Post DHL partnered with the UAV manufacturer Microdrones in December 2013 to deliver pharmaceuticals to employees at DHL’s headquarters in Germany. This joint project took place in the city of Bonn, but the setting was comparable to a rural location as the UAV flew across the Rhine river – both the take-off and landing areas and the flight path were free of any buildings.

This is noteworthy as it substantially simplifies flight and delivery operations – buildings influence wind patterns and GPS signal strength and, most importantly, complicate delivery compared to the simple drop-off that’s possible in rural settings. A UAV called the DHL Paketkopter (“parcel-copter”) was under the manual control of an operator at all times, to fulfill regulatory requirements.

But from a technical perspective, it could have operated with full autonomy by following GPS waypoints. This vehicle was equipped with a release mechanism allowing it to put down the parcel via remote control or pre-programmed instruction. Based on the test flights in December and depending on further regulatory developments DHL will continue to pursue this use case. This project clearly underlines the feasibility of UAV-based deliveries in a real-world setting. A widespread use, however, will still need time.

UAVs offer greatest advantage to infrastructures that are weak or almost non-existent. For example, in rural Europe aerial deliveries via a UAV network could speed up deliveries and raise service levels, but in rural Africa this could be a complete game changer. Remote communities in developing nations often lack access to proper roads and train lines.

Connecting villages through UAV delivery networks could enable their participation in the global economy and more frequent supply of critical goods. This would, in turn, speed up economic development, as at some level the use of UAVs overcomes the expensive and time-consuming task of establishing infrastructure.

1.3 Surveillance of Infrastructure

As in other industries, organizations in the logistics industry must monitor their infrastructure. UAVs can help with security and safety surveillance in large-scale facilities such as warehouse sites, yards, docks and even pipelines. They can also help to guide various operations (e.g., the movement of trucks and forklifts on site). Probably the most promising application is using UAVs to provide customers with a value-added service (VAS); for example on oil fields.

BP, British multinational oil and gas company, will routinely use UAVs to patrol their Alaskan oil fields which is the first authorized commercial UAV operation in the United States. Their UAVs will be used to monitor specific maintenance activities on roads, oil pipelines, and other infrastructure in the vast and potentially dangerous artic environment of northern Alaska.

It is estimated that BP ground crews spend up to a week checking a two mile section of pipeline, however, according to BP´s technology director Curt Smith, UAVs can scan a two mile section in 30 minutes.31 At a first level, surveillance of infrastructure involves the logistics company in monitoring its own sites and assets. This can ensure they are used to full capacity and are protected (e.g., theft reduction in warehouses containing items of particular value).

The status of the infrastructure can be assessed from the air, and damage (e.g., on a warehouse roof) can be evaluated. At some future point in time, it may be possible for UAVs to carry out minor repairs on hard-to-reach parts of buildings and infrastructure.

At a second level, surveillance of infrastructure involves the logistics company offering UAV services to its customers. Taking the example of an energy customer, their site may be of gigantic scale and their assets expensive and difficult to track. Losing the value of an asset, and hours invested searching for it, could be made even worse by customs fines for each imported item that is temporarily lost.

Additionally, the energy customer is likely to be constantly challenged by issues of Health, Safety, Security, and the Environment (HSSE). It is not easy to keep perfect safety records in the harsh environment of oilfields and mining sites, and DHL already supports energy customers with asset tracking and HSSE recordkeeping improvements. To reach the next level of operational excellence, logistics companies and their customers may – at some point in the future – use UAVs to support tasks such as asset tracking, monitoring risk hotspots, and locating missing employees.