Drones Deliver at PostalVision 2020/4.0 in D.C.

Ever since Jeff Bezos showed up on 60 Minutes, Drones – also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have moved from an industry whisper to a future technology with the potential to disrupt current delivery models.  On April 10-11, 2014 the future was on display at the “Pathways to a New Postal Paradigm” Conference.

Three Leaders Showed How Delivery Could be Revolutionized

Andreas Raptopolous, founder and CEO of Matternet, looked beyond simply delivering parcels. He demonstrated that these UAVs could help build a humanitarian network providing medical and emergency supplies for a fraction of the cost of traditional networks. This would be important for areas where there are few good road networks and little delivery infrastructure, and for increasingly congested urban areas. Matternet’s approach is to create a global platform that could be accessed by any number of operators, using common standards.

Next up was Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?” to conduct an interview with Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired Magazine and founder of 3D Robotics. Chris is cautiously optimistic about the future of regulation and explained that his company has been selling these drones for personal use. The agricultural community picked up on the concept to use the technology to monitor crops and for related purposes. The cost of production is rapidly decreasing, and 3D Robotics favors crowdsourcing and the sharing of new ideas to help accelerate innovation and acceptance.

The final speaker was Matt Sweeny, of Australia-based Flirtey. Not only did he bring a working model, he showed a video of a UAV delivering a package to a government official in Dubai. Matt challenged the audience to imagine a world where cheap, energy efficient delivery was possible by advances in the technology. He also demonstrated that large-scale tests in Australia have proven the concept. His more proprietary business model differed from Matternet’s more open infrastructure, but both Andreas and Matt agreed that the approaches could be complementary. Check out a clip from the presentation:


Skepticism is on the Defensive

Some at the conference (and elsewhere) remain skeptical. Indeed, one senior regulatory official deemed the approach as a “toy for the rich.” But we like those toys, and many people will want them, just as we wanted PC’s and tablets and smartphones. Amazon, Matternet and many more are experimenting and making progress. Delivery firms such as FedEx are investigating opportunities. The potential for both specialized and wide-scale applications may be significant.

Regulation and Public Support are Critical

The U.S. has a blanket ban on all commercial applications of UAVs, and this ban is likely to remain for several years. The U.S. is often a world leader in technology development and application, but it appears that markets outside the U.S. will provide the test bed for the technology and the emerging infrastructure.

UAVs and the Future of Delivery

UAVs were not the only new approach to delivery discussed at PostalVision 2020 (4.0).  Delivery by appointment, mass implementation of parcel locker delivery options, and other activities reinforced the idea that delivery is a new area of opportunity for entrepreneurs and others seeking to meet the changing needs of customers in a digital environment. The last mile will be much more innovative and exciting in the future.

By Bryan Klepacki

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