Drone ambitions brought down to earth

Parcel deliveries in large cities are unlikely ever to switch from the roads to the sky in great number, a London Assembly hearing heard yesterday. Logistics expert Professor Alan McKinnon told the Transport Committee: “My feelings are that drone deliveries will be a niche, premium service. But I don’t see drones becoming a mass mode for parcel deliveries in urban areas, or being a major feature of London’s future transport.”

Professor McKinnon added that drones in the sky are not likely to make much impact in reducing traffic congestion. “Let’s suppose you want to reduce traffic levels in a UK city by 1%; you would need 15 or 16 drones to replace one van and around a million drones in the sky. People who argue that drones can relieve urban traffic congestion are probably deceiving themselves.”

He went on: “There are many other ways to ease traffic congestion, such as shifting deliveries to the evenings and nights.” Another low tech innovation which has the potential to reduce congestion, he added, is ‘crowd shipping’ – allowing people to carry parcels as part of their normal travel. “We shouldn’t be fixated by high tech solutions; we should look at other options.”

Professor McKinnon also asked where drones serving heavily populated urban areas would be able to land. But he added that if drones do have a future, it is in low density locations such as the Highlands of Scotland because the costs of deliveries to remote places can be very high.

The Committee also heard from Henry Harris-Burland, vice president for marketing at Starship Technologies, which is trialling robotic delivery ‘droids’ on the streets of London. “We need to make a distinction between drones and droids,” he said, pointing out that most people are “perfectly happy” with droids occupying footways, but “don’t necessarily want drones buzzing above their heads”.

He added: “E-commerce is growing every year, which in turn is increasing the number of vans and cars on the road involved in parcel deliveries. Industry is moving towards on demand deliveries and our robots can look after that part of the market.” He added that the final three miles of a shipment can account for 40% of the delivery cost, and is where he sees droids making the most difference.

In a second session, Transport for London’s innovation director Michael Hurwitz said that drones are already in use by London Underground to maintain assets – removing the need for scaffolding – and the Metropolitan Police uses the devices for surveillance. “We do see further opportunities and there may well be cases where they are attractive, such as a ‘follower’ drone (to help) someone not capable of carrying their shopping,” he said.

The Committee pointed out that drones and droids are not mentioned in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy and Michael Hurwitz was asked if they form part of future thinking. “Absolutely they are on our horizon; our fundamental role as a strategic authority is to understand what the opportunities are and how they can be integrated,” he said.