What does it mean when companies announce they are “testing drone delivery”?

By now it is clear to anyone who has a passing interest that a large number of logistics providers engaged in last mile delivery are exploring the use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Besides Amazon, the most vocal company involved in such tests, examples of others conducting field tests for drone-based delivery systems include SingPost, Australia Post, DPD, DHL and Swiss Post. Even the US-retailer Walmart is exploring the possibilities.

But when these organisations say they are “testing” drone delivery, what does this actually mean?

Firstly, the systems being tested are almost all designed to handle items under 1kg in weight. There are obvious limits being placed on the size of commercial UAVs, which effectively restricts the size of items they are capable of delivering. Given that many of the items envisaged for delivery are within this weight limit, this is not a significant concern

Largely as a product of the size issue, however, the drone systems have a short battery life. This is a potentially significant hurdle to commercial operations for obvious reasons, most notably delivery range, and given such systems are invariably airborne, also presents safety concerns; what happens if a UAV loses power mid-flight above a motorway, for instance. Battery life and the associated scenarios accompanying a loss of power are therefore another issue being tested.

Furthermore, the security of the vehicles, and the products they are carrying, is another concern undergoing rigorous testing. Companies such as Matternet, which is partnering with Swiss Post on its drone programme, advocate the use of a network of secure landing pads to protect the vehicles. Nonetheless, physical security is not the only issue under scrutiny here; the potential to jam radio signals or hack into drones is a real and significant threat. Given that recent investigations have documented the vulnerability of modern cars to such attacks, the elimination of this weakness is a huge task for manufacturers in this emerging sector.

So which companies will be prepared for UAV delivery? Amazon has been bullish. Many others have been more cautious though, and it is notable that officials from parcel giants UPS and FedEx have voiced pessimistic opinions on commercial viability. Outside the USA, Swiss Post said that “widespread use of drones is not expected within the next five years”, whilst DHL has already used its ‘Paketkopter’ to deliver medicines to residents on the Island of Juist in the North Sea, 12km off the mainland, although this is not set to become a regular service.

As for how drone delivery systems are to be used, it is as yet debateable, however it appears more likely that such services will be used for remote or difficult-to-access regions than in urban areas; this simply due to the cost differential of serving each using conventional methods. Problems such as the aforementioned battery issue would get in the way here though, which suggests that more work is to be done before such operations are practicable.

Nonetheless, with the US Federal Aviation Authority set to release new laws governing commercial drones in June 2016, and other regulatory bodies having taken steps already, the rules of the game are becoming clearer. Now it is all down to execution.