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Are Drones the Future of E-commerce?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Francesca Foster



It goes without saying that the pandemic has dramatically impacted consumer behaviour, in particular e-commerce, the buying and selling of products and services electronically. With the majority of Britain unable to leave their homes and without access to life’s normal activities, online shopping has provided a quick and easy escape. Data from Statista shows a 161% increase in the UK’s online orders from May this year compared to 2019, making the UK e-commerce market’s growth substantially greater than the US market. [1] With e-commerce predicted to almost double by 2023, this trend signifies a huge impact on the retail sector and consumer shopping habits. [2]


However, while this growth has hugely benefited large e-commerce companies such as Alibaba and Amazon, it has created environmental problems. Due to competition in this crowded retail space encouraging companies to offer more relaxed returns policies and free next day delivery, this has resulted in an increased number of delivery vans on the roads.[3] As next day delivery requires that the order is sent immediately, delivery vans are rarely fully stocked, yet must cover the same distance, causing more carbon emissions and reduced efficiency. [4] With emissions from vans increasing a massive 43% from 2007 to 2017, the contribution to pollution by this surge in online shopping is undeniable. [5] By contrast, drones run on Li-Po batteries and eliminate the creation of carbon emissions, and therefore choosing a drone delivery service provides a more environmentally friendly delivery method. [6]


The drone is an unmanned, autonomous aerial vehicle that is swiftly becoming a popular commercial delivery method. Guaranteeing a faster and more economical way of meeting consumer demands, drone delivery has the potential to solve last mile delivery problems such as high costs and low efficiency. After fulfilling a series of safety requirements in line with that of a traditional airline, Wing, a drone delivery company owned by Alphabet Inc, became the first company to be granted the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA)


After fulfilling a series of safety requirements in line with that of a traditional airline, Wing, a drone delivery company owned by Alphabet Inc, became the first company to be granted the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approval to make commercial deliveries in April 2019. [7] Similarly, UPS has also now received the highest level of certification for a drone airline, ‘full Part 135 certification from the FAA’. [8]


This August, Amazon gained FAA approval to operate its fleet of Amazon Prime Air delivery drones, joining Wing and UPS. While Amazon has stated that it is not ready to immediately deploy package deliveries, the company is continuing to test its technology. [9] Amazon’s delivery drone plan includes the provision of deliveries within 30 minutes, weighing less than 5 pounds, and occurring in areas with low population density. [10]


However, the widespread use of drones presents certain legal difficulties. Firstly, there is the issue of personal injury. Drones are certainly not faultless; as well as potential technological complications that could arise, there is also concern surrounding whether a drone has the ability to perceive threats. If a drone fails to recognize a threat, this could result in the drone landing on or crashing into an individual, causing potentially serious injuries. [11] Additionally, a drone could inflict damage on the property where it lands, ultimately resulting in a lawsuit against the company.


Additionally, it may be difficult to obtain a permit or license in some jurisdictions, which can cause financial problems if a company has already offered drone delivery as an option, but subsequently fails to provide this delivery method. Opting to pursue drone delivery despite lacking the appropriate license can lead to further legal complications. [12]


With machines increasingly replacing human workers in the digital age, it will be fascinating to see how quickly companies can overcome these logistical and privacy issues. Extensive research is currently being conducted in order to minimise such dilemmas, including pioneers aiming for total automation, which would mitigate the potential for human error. For example, Amazon is currently developing a human-free system whereby drones are programmed to pick up and deliver packages to predefined destinations. [13] Overall, the aforementioned problems will need to be resolved before the introduction of widespread drone delivery and the eventual replacement of delivery vans.



 

Sources

[1] L Sheldon, 'UK e-Commerce surge leads the way post lockdown' [Cycling Industry News, 14 September 2020] <https://cyclingindustry.news/uk-e-commerce-surge-leads-the-way-post-lockdown/> accessed 22 November 2020

[2] N Winkler, 'What Is the Future of Ecommerce? 10 Insights on the Evolution of an Industry' [Shopifyplus, 23 January 2020] <https://www.shopify.co.uk/enterprise/the-future-of-ecommerce> accessed 22 November 2020

[3] Sheldon, 'UK e-Commerce surge leads the way post lockdown.’

[4] Ibid

[5] T Roberts, 'Climate Crisis: How Green is Your Parcel?' [Vanarama, 21 January 2020] <https://www.vanarama.com/latest-news/climate-crisis-how-green-is-your-delivery.html> accessed 22 November 2020

[6] Jules, 'Can Drone Delivery Work for Your eCommerce Store?' [Easyship, 9 January 2020] <https://www.easyship.com/blog/drone-delivery-for-ecommerce> accessed 24 November 2020

[7] J Porter, 'Alphabet’s Wing drones get FAA approval to make deliveries in the US' [The Verge, 23 April 2019] <https://www.theverge.com/2019/4/23/18512658/google-alphabet-wing-drone-delivery-service-faa-approval-commercial-deliveries> accessed 24 November 2020

[8] J Peters, 'UPS just won FAA approval to fly as many delivery drones as it wants' [The Verge, 1 October 2019] <https://www.theverge.com/2019/10/1/20893655/ups-faa-approval-delivery-drones-airline-amazon-air-uber-eats-alphabet-wing> accessed 24 November 2020

[9] D Lee, 'Amazon lays off dozens of employees at drone programme' [Financial Times, 19 November 2020] <https://www.ft.com/content/95cc17b6-88a5-47b0-a773-f247942a9a8f?segmentId=114a04fe-353d-37db-f705-204c9a0a157b> accessed 24 November 2020

[10] A Palmer, 'Amazon wins FAA approval for Prime Air drone delivery fleet' (CNBC, 31 August 2020) <https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/31/amazon-prime-now-drone-delivery-fleet-gets-faa-approval.html> accessed 24 November 2020

[11] 'Drone Delivery Legal Issues' (HG.org) <https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/drone-delivery-legal-issues-53006> accessed 24 November 2020

[12] Ibid

[13] Jules, 'Can Drone Delivery Work for Your eCommerce Store?’


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