delivery drones landing middle mile truck PUCV

An unconventional solution for the issue of delivery drones landing in people’s yards

Delivery drones landing in people’s yards has long been one of the bigger questions among drone delivery skeptics. What if a pet or child (or theoretically, an adult too) comes up to a delivery drone as it’s nearing the ground, or has landed but it’s rotors are spinning and gets injured? How do you prevent someone from seeing a drone flying through the air and stealing the package? And for people who live in an apartment building with no yard, can a drone even land?

One set of researchers has an unconventional solution for delivery drones landing in people’s yards. Their solution? Delivery drones never land in people’s yards – and they don’t come anywhere near them.

Drone delivery has long been touted by industry advocates as a “last-mile” solution. Here’s been more-or-less the traditional chain of proposed drone delivery: Trains, planes or ships would bring goods long distances, like across countries. Cars and trucks would bring goods from ports to warehouses. Other cars might bring those goods from warehouses to smaller launch centers in communities. And from there, drones would bring those goods the very last mile to people’s homes.

But what if that chain was disrupted? What if trucks did the last-mile delivery, and drones brought last-minute delivery goods to those trucks?

That’s the proposal by researchers at the PUCV School of Industrial Engineering in Chile. Research led by Juan Carlos Piña Pardo, a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate at the school, refers to ‘the traveling salesman problem with release dates and drone resupply.’

Once a delivery truck has loaded up all its packages for the morning, it typically goes out on its route, driving around town to deliver those packages to the individual addresses. But what happens if an urgent package arrives at the shipping facility once the truck is already out on its route? That package might just have to wait until tomorrow to be delivered.

The researchers are now suggesting that drones could promote faster deliveries by sending newly available orders to delivery vehicles while they are en route, allowing those vehicles to continue their distribution without the need to return to the depot periodically to pick up new, urgent packages. 

“This approach leverages the cost and environmental savings that drones can bring, but at the same time eliminates the serious issues of drones interacting directly with customers,” Piña Pardo said in an email to The Drone Girl.

Their research found that using drones for resupply can reduce the total delivery time by up to 20%.

Mercedes-Benz Vision Van
An image of Matternet’s prototype for drones launching from Mercedes-Benz trucks.

It also mitigates how drones would land in individuals’ yards. Instead, drones might land in one loading area so that just truck drivers interact with them. Or perhaps, drones could even land directly on delivery trucks, as a prototype designed in a partnership between Mercedes-Benz and Matternet once showed (though, that prototype was designed for drones to do last-mile deliveries – exactly the opposite of what the PUCV researchers are suggesting).

Only a few other companies have suggested drones for something like “middle-mile,” deliveries, including San Francisco-based drone startup Volansi. Volansi drones are conducting deliveries to cargo drop-off and take-off locations. Then, a human courier brings packages that last mile to the specific address (though Volansi’s deliveries focus on commercial and defense industries, including construction, mining, oil & gas, medical and heavy equipment operations rather than residential package deliveries).

See the entire PUCV research paper here.

What do you think? Are drones better suited for last-mile deliveries? Or does a proposal where drones deliver items to human-operated trucks that are then hand-delivered to peoples’ homes make more sense?

One Comment

  • Mary Di Stefano Diaz says:

    As a commercial drone pilot, it makes sense to me to allow deliveries where there is interaction only between the drone and the delivery personnel and thus never between the drone and the delivery recipient. There are a host of serious liability and violation of safety issues that can be avoided if interaction with the UAS is only among the delivery company employees who would have training in how to manage and work with their UAS systems to maintain personal safety and merchandise security.

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