Drones Are About to Have Their Moment

But not the way Jeff Bezos promised

By late last month, Florida’s daily Covid-19 case count had increased fivefold, causing officials to close beaches for the Fourth of July weekend and leading medical practitioners to advise the elderly to remain at home. For the state’s 4.9 million seniors (one in five residents), pharmacies are now getting creative in order to deliver prescription and over-the-counter essentials to the at-risk population.

Responding to this need in May, CVS pharmacy launched a prescription medication delivery service by aerial drone to a retirement community in Florida. The pharmacy giant’s delivery in The Villages (also the largest retirement community in the United States) was supported by UPS using Matternet M2 autonomous drones.

According to a May 12 company press release, the “technology enabled the first contactless delivery to fight COVID-19 with UPS, transporting items from CVS.” The delivery in Florida began under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 rules, which provide authority to operate through the pandemic and explore ongoing needs.

Drone technology has been used in a variety of scenarios lately: to deliver Covid-19 tests in Ghana, to ensure children have enough library books for summer reading, and to enforce social distancing with loudspeakers from the Daytona Beach police department.

The UPS delivery in Florida expands on tests pilots conducted in Cary, North Carolina, in November 2019 in which UPS completed 1,500 drone deliveries for WakeMed Hospital and its first successful revenue-generating residential delivery of CVS prescriptions. For the CVS delivery, the drone hovered 20 feet above the ground at people’s homes as packages were lowered by a cable and winch. Though the drones flew autonomously, they were monitored by a remote operator.

Though narrowly focused drone test flights are encouraging, Jeff Bezos in 2013 promised us wide-scale retail goods deliveries by 2018, and that still hasn’t happened. Even if his “octocopter” had materialized, it would have been met with the same challenges and likely would have looked as uninspiring as those CVS and the Daytona Beach PD drones: limited to short, human-assisted flight distances and five-pound payloads.

The drone flights at The Villages will not deliver packages directly to the doorstep without human supervision. They will be limited to one-half mile, to a location near the community where a UPS ground vehicle will pick up the packages and hand-deliver them to residents.

Due to their short flight time, weight restrictions, and human oversight, it isn’t likely that drones will be ferrying your Costco-purchased, bulk-sized, 30-pound drum of peanut butter home any time soon. But drones might still be having their moment. Just not in the way we thought.

Slowly getting off the ground

Walgreens began trials of its drone service delivery program in northern Virginia last October, making it the first large retailer to do so. In contrast to CVS, prescriptions aren’t available in its pilot. But it does include over-the-counter medicine as well as food and beverage convenience items. Its program uses Alphabet’s Wing service, which earned FAA certification to operate as an airline. That FAA designation won’t allow them to carry actual pharmacists with Tylenol on the tiny machines, but it instead allows Wing to operate as a commercial service and charge businesses for the transport of goods.

It’s been a measured path for the drone service. In 2017, Wing first tested burrito delivery at Virginia Tech University, but deliveries were sent to an open field rather than an address. Wing spent the following year in Australia expanding the products it delivered from burritos to gelato, coffee, and medication. (Assuming the medicine included antacid tablets, it’s possible they may have been used in that order.)

To operate profitably at scale, aerial drones will need to pilot without human supervision.

The real indigestion for UPS to overcome, however, was the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s safety certifications, which allowed the Wing drones to fly closer to people than usually allowed. UPS had to achieve similar approvals from the FAA in 2019 prior to their trial flights.

Once drones are cleared for takeoff, the next consideration is landing, as customers need sizable space for package deliveries. To assist the landing, Amazon’s Prime Air deliveries require their shoppers to place a landing mat on their lawn.

Four years after this promotional video from 2016 for Amazon’s initial delivery in England, the company hasn’t publicly expanded on this initial test. Traveling under 400 feet and guided by GPS, the drone delivers a bag of popcorn and an Amazon Fire TV Stick to a home resting on a vast farm. Though movies and a snack make for good promotion, reality casts serious doubts on the market fit. There were only two identified beta customers at the time, and from the video, one appears to have at least 50 acres of open land, seriously limiting the market demographic. There haven’t been many more updates to the Amazon Prime Air page since the inaugural flight.

The last mile for all drone companies to overcome is the operational cost. Though the UPS drone delivery service flies autonomously for CVS, it still required human monitoring and a local van for the final feet of delivery to the doorstep during the trial phase. To operate profitably at scale, aerial drones will need to pilot without human supervision.

That’s precisely what UPS hopes to achieve with an eventual massive autonomous drone fleet under its UPS Flight Forward Program. In a press release, UPS claims it is the first company to achieve the FAA’s highest certification, which would allow drones to operate remotely and out of a human operator’s line of sight, at night, and with cargo weighing more than 55 pounds. Perhaps that 30-pound drum of peanut butter is in my future.

Ready for takeoff — indoors?

All those challenges aside, aerial drones may have a significant role to play in retail. Literally, inside of retail. Pensa Systems aims to do just that with an autonomous aerial drone that zips through grocery store aisles scanning dry goods shelves and beverage coolers to precisely locate and count inventory. The Austin-based company raised $10 million last November, in part from ZX Ventures, the investment arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev. This comes as little surprise as consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands typically invest in retailer-supported systems like refrigerated coolers, marketing, promotions, and field labor to monitor inventory.

With buy-online-pick-up-in-store (BOPIS) on the rise and stock levels oscillating daily on essential goods, the company’s claim of 98% inventory scanning accuracy (per the Pensa website) could help retailers keep shelves filled.

Photo: Pensa Systems

Even as businesses reopen, retailers are adapting to new customer behaviors that will stick. Click-and-collect sales will continue through the end of 2020 to the tune of $74 billion, according to eMarketer. To keep up, employers have been ramping up: Walmart plans for 200,000 additional workers, and CVS will add 50,000. Click-and-collect concierge service Instacart also announced massive hiring — 550,000 workers for April and May.

With all of that hiring comes the next challenge: providing associates safe access so they can work efficiently while maintaining social distancing mandates. In-store aerial systems such as Pensa’s might alleviate those concerns. When I visited its exhibit at the National Retail Federation Show in January, representatives claimed the nearly silent drone could be used unobtrusively, even skipping occupied aisles so as not to spook customers during shopping trips. This same capability might help to balance the workload between order-pickers completing orders and drones checking for stock counts and validating beef expiration dates in the meat department.

Autonomous vehicles, a slow roll to your doorstep

Amazon clearly sees a future in vehicles for the long haul of cargo transport to distribution centers given its recent financial investment in autonomous technology company Aurora, its plans to deploy 100,000 electric trucks from Rivian, and its recently announced $1.2 billion acquisition of self-driving taxi company Zoox. But the final mile of package delivery from distribution centers to doorsteps will require cost-efficient miniature autonomous rolling cargo carriers.

Amazon began testing Scout, a six-wheeled rover in Snohomish, Washington, last year. Similar to Wing’s burrito delivery trial, this limited run involved six vehicles, requiring an Amazon employee to escort the robot in the earliest of beta stages.

Amazon Scout autonomous drone. Photo: Amazon

Starship Technologies also has a six-wheeled delivery drone with a maximum cargo capacity of 20 pounds. Aside from the white gloss exterior, it could easily pass for Scout’s twin. Pre-Covid-19, it had been delivering pizza orders to George Mason University students. The closed campus setting was well suited for a pilot service, but Starship recently had to pivot during Virginia’s shelter-in-place orders. Due to restaurant closures related to a Covid-19 response, the city of Fairfax granted fast-track approval for its fleet of 20 robots to deliver groceries and restaurant orders to residents within a small radius.

Limited by a travel speed of four miles per hour and a single delivery per drone, autonomous drones won’t likely be delivering goods directly to our doorsteps in the immediate future. But now that curbside pickup is up 208% due to Covid-19-related shopping behavior changes, it’s time to consider more relevant scenarios for rolling robots.

The challenge with curbside pickup is that most retailers still have legacy brick-and-mortar facilities that have been well designed for walk-in customer traffic. Recently, I tested order pickup at Kroger, which required parking in a separate lot and texting a posted number to alert staff that I was ready for my order. It wasn’t ideal and didn’t assuage my growing concerns about contactless delivery. In fairness, converting a single-window drive-through lane at a pharmacy or adding a door at a grocery store isn’t a trivial or inexpensive fix.

The future could be now

Consider this imagined scene from our near future.

I roll into an unmodified parking lot for my local grocery retailer and place the car in park. As I idle in a standard parking space, the retailers’ app awakens and acknowledges my arrival as geo-fencing alerts the store systems to my proximity.

An in-store associate quickly grabs the bags of groceries for my order and loads them into a six-wheeled carrier. Once the lid is automatically closed, it cheerfully motors outside through a small doggy door and heads to the parking lot. Since the average run from the store to each waiting vehicle is about 50 feet and takes fewer than five minutes, there is little concern about battery drain.

Given the short distance the drone travels, recharging is only required at the end of each day. And should it fail or require attention, an associate is only footsteps away for collection and maintenance.

In my rearview mirror, I watch the drone navigate the lot at four miles per hour, crisscrossing dozens of other drones in the fleet on their way to other waiting sedans and SUVs. They respectfully pause for walking customers and each other, as if in a coordinated ballet.

A drone fleet. Photo: Starship

When the drone parks by the rear of my car, the top hatch opens automatically, presenting its cargo. My hands will only be touching the handles on my bags of groceries. As I close the trunk and motor away, the drone automatically closes its hatch and dutifully returns to base through another small doggy door. Upon entry, it passes through a Smurf-sized car wash where pressurized nozzles spray sanitizing disinfectant on the rover, preparing it for the next customer pickup.

As I anxiously stand in line outside Costco, wearing surgical gloves and a retailer-mandated face mask and awaiting entry for a chance to purchase a tub of peanut butter, I can’t wait for the future to get here soon enough.

Breaker of treadmills. Contributions in XBOX Mag, Forbes, CNN, OneZero & industry rags. @ retail, CPG, health/wellness, education, culture & tech.

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