Attack of the Drones
The conspiracy theorists were right! Get ready for an invasion of unidentified flying objects.
Neil Hamill, Senior Transport Consultant at BuroHappold Engineering, considers the implications of Amazon’s new delivery system.
For some time, Amazon has been promoting their interest in using drones for home deliveries, and they are now working with the Civil Aviation Authority to explore how this might become a reality.
But is this really a system that we want to embrace? There are a number of obvious issues, not least those linked to air traffic control and safety – after all, no one wants to be hit on the head by a rogue parcel as they saunter down the street.
Privacy is a concern, since drones are basically low flying aircraft – potentially equipped with cameras – roaming over our homes and gardens. Cyber security poses another threat as, in the inimitable words of Robot Wars judge and Sheffield University professor Noel Sharkey, “all information is stealable, and all drones hackable.”
Several other practical concerns spring to mind that have not yet been addressed in Amazon’s announcements. Perhaps most significant is where will the parcels be left? One BBC news item spoke of a special ‘landing mat’ in the garden, but where does that leave people living in apartment buildings – especially those with no on-site management staff? Flat roofs may be suitable in some locations, with modifications to ensure safe access, but that certainly won’t work in all cases.
Where people do have access to a private garden, there is then the small matter of the pet dog, neighbour’s cat or increasingly bold neighbourhood foxes to consider. And what about the weather? For packages to be left outside for more than a few minutes, Amazon may need to revisit their cardboard packaging to improve weather resistance. But would this then significantly reduce its potential for recycling?
Yet all these concerns seem minor when we consider the real question – do we, as a society, believe this is the right step forward for home delivery systems? For a number of years, we’ve seen a move toward consolidation centres that typically allow vans or small trucks to be used efficiently to tackle ‘last mile’ deliveries in place of multiple (largely empty) vehicles plying the same routes, reducing congestion and emissions.
One van could potentially carry more than 100 parcels of the size that Amazon’s drones can manage, so we have to ask ourselves – would we rather see 100 drones buzzing round a neighbourhood, or a single van doing the rounds?
At BuroHappold, we feel that logistics specialists should continue to look beyond the traditional delivery van to find more efficient and sustainable last mile solutions, and that they should challenge big suppliers like Amazon to support such schemes instead. Initiatives such as SMILE, which uses electric tricycles to courier packages around Mediterranean cities such as Valencia, and has the backing of international logistics firms DHL and TNT, seem to be offer an alternative to drones that would be safer for the environment, and society.
So before we abandon ourselves to the dystopian vision of skies filled with Amazon parcels, let’s stop and consider whether that is really the future we want to look forward to.
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