The key to a successful drone delivery service isn’t necessarily using the fanciest, most expensive drone. It’s not necessarily the ability to fly hundreds of miles on a single battery. It’s also not necessarily the ability to carry tons of weight.
The key to a successful drone delivery service is mastering the process.
“The process is more important than the technology,” said Patrick Meier, co-founder of humanitarian drone group WeRobotics. “The workflows and standard operating procedures, preventative maintenance strategies are so key.”
WeRobotics, which has been testing delivery drones for humanitarian aid in Peru, today released a highly detailed report on cargo drones, which they are making free to the public — something rare for the highly secretive drone delivery business.
The report details their latest field tests in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, where more than 40 flights with a dozen different models of cargo drones and a range of payloads (medicines, diagnostic tests, blood samples) and distances (2km to 120km) flew through the skies. The tests were carried out in partnership with the Ministry of Health and BD, a multi-billion dollar medical technology company.
It’s worth noting that it’s not that expensive drones are bad, but in drone delivery scenarios like WeRobotics’ deliveries in the rainforest where budgets are low and the deliveries are in remote locations, a lack of process won’t get you very far in making successful deliveries at scale.
The drones used by WeRobotics cost between $3,000 to $5,000, according to the report. The SkyHunter airframe itself can cost as little as $99 (though that is just the airframe and doesn’t include other components such as the autopilot).
“The idea that you would need very expensive drones in the context of these use cases in the rainforest is misguided,” he said.
So what needs to go into developing a process that works? Here are just a few components, according to Meier.
- Pre-flight checklists
- Verification of the platform (the hardware and the software)
- Post flight checklists
- Logging flights
- Regularly replacing servos (WeRobotics replaces them every 20-30 landings)
Another benefit of using lower cost drones? They typically have lower operating and maintenance costs too, which can add up to more than simply the cost of the drone.
WeRobotics uses drones that local repair shops are able to fix, and that local residents are able to operate.
“You want to prioritize using drones that are affordable, locally repairable and locally operated,” Meier said. “As soon as you start going to the more advanced drones, the complexity increases.”
Meier said that by using more expensive drones, the team would be faced with having to ship drones back to the original manufacturer for repair, which can be time-consuming considering the drones are flying in the Amazon rainforest, and expensive — not just to ship but in lost flight hours.
“A top drone team can do more with mediocre drones than a less-than-experienced drone team can do with the best drones on the planet.” – Patrick Meier, co-founder of WeRobotics
“Otherwise you’re creating a dependency,” he said. “The more you can localize your technology, the better off your operation will be.”
The report also said that in order for drone delivery to make financial sense, it’s drones would need to cost about $5,000 or less in order to make the price of each delivery competitive with the price of riverboats and amphibious planes.
But using a drone with a relatively low price tag isn’t holding WeRobotics back.
“A top drone team can do more with mediocre drones than a less-than-experienced drone team can do with the best drones on the planet,” Meier said.