November 22, 2016

The Future of Unmanned Logistics

By Grant Goldsmith, Avalon Risk Management, Overwatch


There has been a great deal of buzz about drones lately. The FAA has finally approved the Small Unmanned Systems rules for business flying (FAA Part 107), and many companies who were already using drones are working to meet these regulatory requirements. Many more business who have been waiting for the FAA’s updated rules are now considering drones for their business models. Legal issues are still emerging – how will privacy matters be addressed? Will drones be operated safely within the National Airspace? Does the FAA have an airspace management systems capable of handling the huge increase in additional flying systems?

The Logistics Industry has already had some early leaders publicly pushing for the use of drones in logistics. Amazon and others are experimenting with small package delivery. Walmart is using drones to help with inventory management in their warehouses. Aircraft manufacturers are looking at lighter than air (blimp) systems to deliver shipping container-sized loads to unimproved landing zones and outside the FAA controlled airspace over water. The use of flying drones in package delivery and cargo delivery will certainly grow quickly and change rapidly as the industry finds new ways to leverage this growing technology.

The non-flying side of the drone world is also making drastic changes and these changes are less noticed than their flying counterparts. Uber very recently made a delivery of a truckload of beer within the USA using a drone driven truck. This truck was optionally piloted meaning the truck did have a licensed human driver on board the vehicle, but the truck did make the movement entirely autonomously. Drone trucking will have a much greater impact on logistics than flying drones. This is due to the persistent shortage of driver in the USA and due to the impact of “Driver Hours” rules. Once optionally piloted trucks become available two things will happen: there will need to be a new discussion of “Driver Hours” as the drone will be doing most of the driving, and there will be a rapid move toward semi-autonomous trucking to ultimately autonomous trucking. I can easily see a logistics future where most goods transiting the USA by truck will, within 10 years, shift most of the miles under drone control. In order to make this a reality the trucks will need to be modern vehicles with sensors tracking obstacles and movement on a 360 degree basis at all times – that is the equivalent of seeing everything all the time. I predict that these new trucks will be safer than trucks on the road today if, for no other reason, than the computers driving these trucks provide a level of vigilance impossible to replicate by human senses alone.

The rise of Drone Trucking will in turn create the movement and constructions of warehousing and distribution centers aimed at taking full advantage of these newer autonomous systems. These fixed assets will be best placed near routes to create “drone to drone” hubs using routes approved for drone trucking. Final mile delivery may remain the job of human drivers until the software, sensors and technology are able to make these final distribution center to door deliveries. Distribution Centers themselves will be redesigned to assist drone operated trucks to get from the highway to loading docks without human interaction. Drone forklifts may then move the pallets and packages to predetermined and marked spaces where other drones can pick these items up for reloading and onward movement.

The changes up until now have been gradual and somewhat reflective of the generational norms of Americans. I can tell that our children are already extremely comfortable with the concept of robotics and the wide world of drones doing everyday tasks. As these younger generations enter the workforce they will be more open to the ideas and investments in drone systems – particularly for logistics tasks. This future of drone logistics mirrors information management improvements and increased bandwidth and data transfer speeds. These systems will rely on Wi-fi, satellite and RF tracking (and probably on new technologies that we haven’t thought of yet but that will be developed in time as make everything faster, easier and more transparent is vital).

The rise of drones both in the air and on the ground will be a huge disruptor to the logistics industry. Those who incorporate the change will survive and those who wait too long to embrace the changes may find themselves unable to catch the wave once it has past. For more information about drone coverage, contact Overwatch or send us an email.

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