Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: What does drone delivery of everyday products look like?

Online shopping has many advantages. The availability of products that cannot be found in retail stores, lower costs for companies and thus lower prices for customers, and the possibility of convenient shopping from home are some of the most popular.

However, the delivery of products purchased online is a different story. Companies worldwide have been dealing with it since the very beginning of the internet.

Packaging and delivery usually represent a significant cost for companies, which are often passed on to the customer in one way or another. In addition, there is the delivery time to account for, which can take a few days to several weeks.

The delivery time depends on many factors, but there are also extreme cases. Like when one has to wait longer for a product ordered in our home country than when the order comes from distant China. And all consumers want faster deliveries every day.

Example of delivery made by drone. Photo: Kallerna, Wikimedia.
Example of delivery made by drone. Photo: Kallerna, Wikimedia.

So how do we optimise this part of online sales in the best possible way? Among the best alternatives for delivery by postal vans are delivery drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which include all aircraft without any human pilot, crew, or passengers on board. Delivery drones can deliver food, medicine and other goods, which of course, must not be too heavy or too oversized.

Drones appeared on store shelves years ago as items for entertainment and professional photography or video recording. Over time, technology developed, and drones got better and better; longer flight time, better quality photos, automatic collision avoidance while flying, and the like.

“Rapid technological developments in autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drones) and an evolving legislation may soon open the way for their large-scale implementation in the last mile delivery of products,” the authors of a study on drone delivery from 2019  supported by the European Commission wrote (Last mile delivery by drones: an estimation of the viable market potential and access to citizens across European cities).

Drone distribution centre concept by Amazon. Photo: Curnlander, 2017.
Drone distribution centre concept by Amazon. Photo: Curnlander, 2017.

The performed analyses indicated that according to the scenario considered the most technologically realistic, such delivery could be possible for a maximum of 7 per cent of EU citizens. If the technological improvement scenarios and progress were considered, this share rose to 30 per cent. They identified the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and France as the most likely countries where drone beehives may have the most efficient development.

Delivery drones are usually controlled remotely by pilots located at the take-off point. Recently, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) is being researched as well, enabling the drone to complete the journey by itself without being controlled by a person.

Drones typically feature 4 to 8 horizontal propellers and run on electricity. They are equipped with rechargeable batteries that allow them to fly for a few tens of minutes. Of course, they also have the option of carrying light packages, which they take from the distribution centre to the customer’s home. They usually leave the package on the lawn, in the garden or outside the front door.

This type of delivery brings greater efficiency at lower costs, as customers can receive the package even within 30 minutes after placing the order. As a result, there is less traffic on the roads and fewer accidents and, consequently, emissions. Some time ago, Forbes estimated that drone delivery is 90 per cent cheaper than car-based services.

One of the companies developing drone delivery is called F-Drones. They specialise in drone deliveries between shore, ships, and offshore platforms. The HyperCopter proprietary drone can carry a load of 10 kilograms over 15 kilometres, and HyperLaunch can carry 5 kilograms over 50 kilometres.

F-drones is currently developing its new drone, the HyperLaunch Heavy (HLH), which will be able to deliver 100 kilograms over a distance of 100 kilometres, opening up a whole new dimension of drone delivery, according to Drone Watch.

In addition to F-drones, global delivery companies such as DHL and UPS and retailers such as Walmart and Amazon are also engaged in developing such deliveries.

F-drones mainly deal with delivery to ships. Photo: F-drones.
F-drones mainly deal with delivery to ships. Photo: F-drones.

When flying, drones use sensors that allow them to fly efficiently and safely. For example, the accelerometer helps the drone adjust its speed in stronger winds.

GPS and magnetic sensors are used to determine the drone’s position and navigate it from where it is to where it must go. They also help in stabilising the drone and orientation in relation to surfaces. In addition, they also enable the drone to avoid obstacles during flight.

Meanwhile, airflow sensors measure and record wind speed, temperature, and air density data, which are also crucial for safe flying.

Lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries are among the most common battery types used for drones because they offer enough energy and power to fly while also being light. However, the weight of the battery is the biggest obstacle that manufacturers face when trying to extend the flight time of a drone.

What about the cons? For the time being, drone delivery is mostly still in the testing phase, and it will be necessary to solve quite a few challenges for it to be fully implemented. The most obvious is, of course, the technological limitations, such as the weight of the packages, limited flight time and range due to the battery, and obstacle avoidance systems.

More serious challenges are also coming to the fore, such as collisions with objects or even a drone crash, in which people can also be injured.

The development of drone delivery is undoubtedly in the interest of both retailers and consumers, but much work is still needed in all areas such delivery could affect.

Author: Marko Želko

Keywords: drones, delivery, digitization, technology.


This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK) Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament. 

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.