Amazon, Google, UPS: Who is winning the drone delivery race?
By Harrison Wolf, Lead, Aerospace and Drones, World Economic Forum
While innovative start-ups like Zipline and Wingcopter are leaders in the drone revolution outside the US – both with successful operations throughout Africa and Europe – Amazon, Google, and UPS are set to redefine the landscape of delivery more broadly.
With the announcement that Amazon’s drone delivery program finally got approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration a few days ago, the innovation race for consumer package delivery has turned up the heat a notch.
Amazon is the third company to achieve this unique milestone in the USA, enabling expanded use of their autonomous air delivery system to connect rural populations for improved delivery times. Including drone delivery into Amazon services and offer the option to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less, via Prime Air, provides the clearest picture yet for drone delivery and has significant competitive advantages over the other two approved operations – Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and UPS respectively.
While Alphabet’s wholly owned drone delivery service Wing Aviation, and UPS’ Flight Forward have beaten Amazon to the starting line and achieved this certification, Amazon’s long expected approval trailblazes with a business model that potentially integrates seamlessly into existing logistics systems.
The success of drone delivery has proven over the past few years to be less about the technology and more about how the drone is used. Zipline redefined the game in Rwanda and Ghana; by first delivering blood and then expanding to PPE when COVID-19 hit, it highlighted that it is a logistics company first, and a drone business second. Its most important innovations come through supply-chain management, integration with existing workflows, and continued education of their stakeholders in the process.
Perhaps the following distinctions between the leading companies in the US offer insights into who wins and loses the race for delivery domination.
Who builds the drones?
Amazon and Google build their own drones, UPS doesn’t. Choosing to build your own drone is risky. Hardware, as they say in Silicon Valley, is hard. Both Amazon and Google, tech companies at heart, have developed their own hardware from the beginning and continue to develop and attempt to certify their aircraft internally, creating tighter innovation processes and quicker evolution.
They also continue to develop the connective technologies that will maintain and manage their operation. This has the benefit of allowing exactly the type of aircraft changes they need, ensuring streamlined development processes, and rapid evolution to meet their needs.
UPS, on the other hand, has found value in partnering with innovative startups that they have invested in, like Matternet, Wingcopter, and Zipline. The partnerships have allowed UPS to reduce their risk exposure, influence design through adoption, and focus on what they do best: meet the needs of their customers. While UPS will be reliant on portfolio companies to perform and achieve certifications, treating a drone like a truck to optimise its use may be the way to go.
UPS and Amazon have huge logistics networks and existing demand, Google doesn’t. Every product needs a customer. UPS and Amazon are their own customers when it comes to drone delivery. Google, on the other hand, needs to partner with businesses outside of the standard Amazon or UPS delivery network for drone delivery.
Is there an existing logistics network?
The question, really, is would you rather be a supply-chain company looking to integrate a technology or a tech company looking to create and refine one piece of an entire logistics network? To date, Google’s delivery network has focused on tests with small businesses – most notably burritos and dog food delivery in Australia, baked goods in Finland, and recently groceries in the United States.
UPS, on the other hand, has applied its logistics expertise in delivering prescription medicines to elderly communities in Florida while their partners look to certify their systems. Amazon, having missed an opportunity to pilot real business operations in the US through the FAA’s initial Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)Integration Pilot Program (IPP), has had very limited operational testing with customers though they have been able to test on-demand delivery of goods in Cambridge, UK.
What’s the tech X-Factor?
The X-Factor: All three major players in the drone delivery race in the US have real differentiators when it comes to technology. Wing, having been spun out of the Google X lab, can leverage close partnership to any of Google’s other products, including high resolution mapping, autonomous technologies, health-sensor data, and a plethora of other lesser unknown or in-development technologies that can act as catalysts for rapid change or application.
Amazon’s clear understanding and domination of e-commerce – from product development to consumer behaviour to delivery – may be just the thing that sets them apart. UPS’ global experience in supply-chain and logistics management, combined with trust from both consumers and government, may provide the wisdom and character needed to promote the societal acceptance needed.
Three behemoths of technology and delivery are asserting their place in the sky above our heads like never before. Who will win the race? Will it be the tech giant experts at Google with a grab bag of technologies set to support and accelerate their drone vision? Will it be UPS, the traditional supply-chain and logistics delivery company already trusted to handle other companies’ most important goods? Or will it be Amazon’s Prime Air, a combination of the two, with an existing customer base more familiar with technology and eager to receive packages ever faster?
Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, the drone delivery revolution has begun.