Many Americans will receive their first e-commerce delivery by drone as more drones take flight. Changes inside and outside the warehouse will be needed
By: Brian Straight
Maybe not today, and not likely tomorrow, but one day soon, many Americans will receive their first e-commerce delivery by drone. For residents in select areas of the country – North Carolina, Arkansas and Ohio among others – drones are already making deliveries to the home.
Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Walmart (NYSE: WMT), UPS (NYSE: UPS) and Kroger (NYSE: KR) are among the large retailers and delivery providers that are rapidly scaling up drone delivery tests. Others will soon follow.
But while nearly all of the attention is on the – admittedly – very cool imagery of a drone safely dropping a Starbucks coffee to the ground, another piece of infrastructure must undergo a revolution of sorts if drone delivery can truly take off.
“How those 3PLs factor in drones will play a big part in their success – but it’s also about future proofing warehouses, which have historically gone through little change in terms of their configuration over the years,” Ashley Smart, EMEA logistics development director at real estate services firm JLL, said in a recent blog post. “Buildings will need to accommodate drones in just a few years’ time if technical and regulatory progress continues at its current pace.”
As the pace of deliveries from warehouses (including microfulfillment centers) and retail stores pick up, these facilities will need space for the drones to land, charge and get loaded for the next delivery. That means land space, roof space or even space inside the warehouse. It means rethinking warehouse logistics, including operations inside facilities that will have to shift from pallet loading to single-item loading.
“3PLs more used to dispatching multiple items will be switching to single items being sent out individually – that alone is a big change to overcome given traditional delivery methods,” Smart said.
“In our case, we just need flat roof space to operate from. One aircraft requires about a 3-by-3-meter clear flat space, and one aircraft can do between five to 10 deliveries per hour depending on operating radius,” he told Modern Shipper. “We also think it’s a good idea to have a direct connection from the warehouse underneath the aircraft to make transit between storage and cargo bay short. A lift for instance would be ideal.”
Todd Lewis, vice president of Prologis Ventures (Prologis Ventures is an investor in FreightWaves), said that rooftop landings could work, but there are challenges with that type of approach. First is whether the roof can handle the necessary weight and activity.
Taking Prologis’ portfolio as an example, “You have nearly a billion square feet of warehouse floor space, but you also have nearly a billion square feet of roof space,” he said before adding the potential issues with rooftop drone services.
“You have to accommodate the innards to get those packages to the roof somehow,” Lewis said. “Traditionally speaking, worker safety is so paramount in our world, and rooftop access is traditionally limited to workers. If we want to launch from rooftops, how do you do that safely?”
Lewis said warehouses are going to have to accommodate drones in the future.
“Drone capabilities and delivery radius are going to dramatically improve,” he said. “Today it’s a 5-mile radius. … Tomorrow it’s going to be 50 miles … which means most of our customers’ facilities will have to be drone capable.”
A common approach for drones is launching pads or landing pads. Zipline International’s drones use a slingshot design for launch, but they are more like aircraft than small drones. Electric vehicle takeoff and landing (EVTOL) aircraft are able to land without much space but still require a landing pad. Not all existing warehouses have the space to accommodate such pads.
Not unlike a rooftop system, the advantage of ground-based pads is they require very few internal warehouse changes to operate. Healy said Manna’s aircraft – like many drones – can be charged automatically, and they will soon have the ability to be loaded automatically as well, which means warehouses could theoretically automate the entire process – from picking to send-off.
Drone provider AgEagle Aerial Systems (NYSE: UAVS) and Valqari, a Chicago-based startup that is building a drone delivery “mailbox” that allows drones to deliver packages directly into a safe and secure box, are two of a series of companies that are making automatic loading and unloading a key feature of their drone systems. In their case, the drone can pick up or drop off the package in a Drone Delivery Station without human hands touching it.
Lewis, who spent eight years with UPS with significant time devoted to drones and last-mile delivery, noted that the type of load the drone will be carrying matters as well. For instance, UPS is buying 10 Beta Technologies electric aircraft capable of carrying 1,400 pounds, and while the aircraft has vertical landing capability, the weight poses a different set of issues.
“The infrastructure needed to support 1,000-pound drones is very different to support fulfillment,” he said, noting that Prologis is a “staunch supporter” of electrification solutions.
Vehicle as a base
Another option that Lewis mentioned is using trailers or vehicles as a base for the drones. A system that includes backing up a 53-foot trailer to a loading dock, allowing packages to be loaded into the trailer and the drone to land on the roof for pickup is being developed by several companies.
“There are several models like this we have seen,” he said, notingFlirtey is one company working on such a system.
For this system to work at a warehouse, the warehouse operator would simply need available dock doors.
“They can preload these trailers and when the drone lands, they can auto ingress and digest the packages in a perfect world,” Lewis said.
Regardless of the system, though, Lewis said location is vital.
“Where are these warehouses and what is the direct proximity to consumer delivery?” he asked. “And that’s why in our world, when you think of the shift to final mile … the top priority is location.”
Lewis also mentioned systems in which drones could potentially fly directly into the warehouse through windows, as a possibility, although that could eat up critical storage space.
Inside the warehouse
Even as consideration for drone landing/takeoff outside a facility is considered, there are also considerations that must be made inside the warehouse – namely around how will the packages to the drone be loaded?
“You would need to have load stations inside the warehouse, much like you have a load station for a package car,” Lewis said, suggesting such an area could be as small as a 10-foot-by-10-foot area.
A “hive” model could be utilized as well. In this model, several drones sit on a cart that is loaded by personnel inside the warehouse and then brought outside for the drone to take flight.
“How those 3PLs factor in drones will play a big part in their success – but it’s also about future proofing warehouses, which have historically gone through little change in terms of their configuration over the years. Buildings will need to accommodate drones in just a few years’ time if technical and regulatory progress continues at its current pace.”ASHLEY SMART, EMEA LOGISTICS DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, JLL
If the trailer model is used, how will the packages get to the trailer? This system could be automated, potentially, but it may require installation of or rerouting machinery and conveyors. Also, if a permanent structure is added to the building, that may require permits, construction and additional land.
While rooftop landing pads may make the most sense, there will be questions about whether the roof is structurally significant to handle drones, and how many. Additionally, if the warehouse is a multistory facility, how will the packages reach the roof? They could go on conveyors or elevators, and personnel may need to work on the roof to monitor operations or even load the drones.
All of these considerations are just a few of the potential changes warehouses may have to undergo to accommodate last-mile drone delivery. Until now, most pilot projects are limited in scale, meaning these next-level accommodations have not been front and center, but that is about to change.
“I’m a staunch believer in how impactful drones will be in the final-mile and middle-mile sectors,” Lewis said.
Now, the focus is starting to turn to how warehouses can help make this a reality.