2015 will likely go down in history books as the year that a revolution slammed into trucking, upending over a century of technology and tradition. Suddenly, people were talking about self-driving trucks, truck platooning, electric trucks — and even flying delivery drones that would drop packages off on a customer’s doorstep.
Trucking wasn’t immune to change, of course. No industry or technology is. But all of the sudden, it seemed like we were in “Smokey and the Bandit” one day and woke up in “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” the next.
All of these new technologies seemed pretty far out there at the time. Eventually, it seemed that autonomous trucks and drone deliveries were the main contenders for the honor of top freak-out. We all knew electric cars existed. And who wasn’t familiar with the concept of a truck convoy, after all? But robotic trucks and drones?
Once the initial shock wore off, these technologies soon began to take form through vigorous research and development, and timelines began to firm up indicating when we could expect to see field trials, production and deployment.
Except for drones.
A Delivery Drone Coming to Your Neighborhood?
Despite the initial splash they made, drones faded into the background, at least as far as how they might affect trucking. In terms of immediate impact on operations, fleets were more interested in autonomous trucks, zero-emissions vehicles, and truck platooning.
But other industry players, such as Amazon, FedEx and Walmart, were watching the development of delivery drones intensely — and participating in their development. In 2019, both FedEx and UPS announced their first drone deliveries to customers.
Drones are now back on the front page.
In March, Fed Ex set the tone for news to come, announcing that it was teaming up with California Bay Area-based Elroy Air to test its Chaparral autonomous air cargo system (drone). In the announcement, FedEx showcased why drone delivery systems will be a game-changer for logistics and P&D companies: The Chaparral drone can autonomously pick up 300-500 pounds of cargo and deliver it by air up to 300 miles. And more significantly, FedEx added, Chaparral is capable of longer-range flights without the need for additional infrastructure, such as airports or charging stations.
In May, Walmart announced that it would expand drone deliveries by the end of the year, increasing its drone delivery network to 34 sites. That will give it the possibility to reach 4 million U.S. households across six states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. This move will give Walmart the capability to deliver over 1 million packages by drone each year, the company added.
And in mid-June, Amazon announced that it expects to deploy its first operational delivery drones before the end of this year, in Lockeford, California. According to Amazon, these first-generation delivery drones are designed for two main scenarios: “to be safe when in transit, and to be safe when approaching the ground. When flying to the delivery location, the drones need to be able to identify static and moving obstacles. Our algorithms use a diverse suite of technologies for object detection. Using this system, our drone can identify a static object in its path, like a chimney. It can also detect moving objects on the horizon, like other aircraft, even when it’s hard for people to see them. If obstacles are identified, our drone will automatically change course to safely avoid them.”
Given this spate of recent news, it appears that drones are once again poised to add their fair share of disruption to how fleets operate — particularly those engaged in middle- and last-mile delivery operations.
It’s also a timely reminder for fleet managers that just because one technology or another isn’t in the headlines or top-of-mind for many in the industry, it doesn’t mean it has faded away. Multifaceted change is coming to trucking soon. Including in the sky.