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Waiting to fill the airspace near you soon: Drones

Updated: 2014-06-13 07:57
By David Edwards and Nachiappan Subramanian ( China Daily Africa)

Waiting to fill the airspace near you soon: Drones

After the magnificent takeoff of e-commerce, new ways are needed to keep it flying

E-commerce is booming in China and delivery services need to keep pace with it. Most people have experienced frustration with the delivery of purchases, especially during peak buying periods. The problem is a global one, but it is more pronounced in China, where huge volumes of goods have to be delivered across diverse landscapes. Could aerial drones help solve the problem?

Most people will tolerate a hiccup or two in the delivery of their goods, but that tolerance can be stretched to breaking point if they have to make multiple phone calls and then make a trip to pick up the parcel they have been waiting for.

Wouldn't it be great to have a drone deliver your package directly to you at your convenience, perhaps even guided by your mobile phone?

An urban sky filled with drones may seem like science fiction - and for many a bit of an eyesore - but delivery drones are now being tested by big delivery companies. Drone deliveries are being mapped out for major cities such as Dubai, based on the belief that technological and economic cases are coming together to make drones a feasible, efficient and green option for e-commerce delivery.

Drone technology is developing rapidly, but beyond the technical issues there are many social and legal implications too. The public acceptance of dozens of these contraptions filling the airspace over cities is just one. Laws would be needed to regulate the use of airspace, and they would need to cover the possibility of drones being impeded or hijacked.

Yet tech savvy customers want a more personalized shopping experience together with the kind of around-the-clock convenience that bank machines offer. Better delivery services would also benefit online sellers by generating higher sales.

For the e-commerce boom to continue in China, delivery services need to improve to handle peak demand and offer high-quality immediacy. For instance, peak seasons for retail sales have proved a major problem for delivery companies in China. On Nov 11 last year, the value of sales of Taobao, one of the largest e-retailer platforms in China, exceeded 19 billion yuan ($3.04 billion) and the total number of transactions exceeded 100 million.

But getting those goods to customers turned into a nightmare for delivery services, the 70 million parcels packed and dispatched simply being too much to handle. The avalanche of packages arriving at distribution centers across China caused huge delays for most online shoppers. "Not delivered on time" topped the complaint list of online customers at the time.

What delivery companies need most is flexibility in handling large volumes of packages and to offer "just-in-time" high-value service. This is where drones would be best suited - delivering small, light, valuable items that are time sensitive. In fact, Amazon has announced plans to deliver packages to customers' doors using drones. The online retailer hopes to use drones carrying products weighing less than about 2.3 kilograms to users within 30 minutes of an order being placed, and the US Federal Aviation Administration is drawing up rules for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Rivals have sometimes mocked these plans, yet many companies and governments are seriously considering using drones. The Dubai government recently unveiled two prototype drones designed to deliver products such as medicines, documents and vital papers for civil authorities. They expect the system will be up and running in the next few years.

In principle, customer demand for what drones could offer is clear. Consider, too, the benefit to society in reducing energy use. Should we really be using pollution-producing trucks and vans to deliver small packages in congested cities?

Using drones to make commercial deliveries is as yet largely untested, but the idea is supported by the principle of mutual benefit. Some inventions and innovations often seem gimmicky initially, but soon take off. Commercial deliver drones may be doing exactly a lot sooner than you think.

The authors are scholars with Nottingham University Business School in Ningbo. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/13/2014 page13)

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