European delivery drone sector stumbles
as Amazon, DHL, close operations
Callum Holland – a fifteen-year veteran of unmanned aviation technology and head of Flight Operations at Thales UK – did warn us not long ago that the journey towards unamend air mobility (UAM); especially in the busy skies of developed cities; would be long and arduous.
In a passionate blog early this year, Holland warned that – while the delivery drone space was full of amazing professionals who were working tirelessly to ensure the realisation of drone deliveries in European and other first class cities of the world – it was also worryingly becoming a breeding ground for misinformation and dream selling by those wishing to make fast cash from optimistic investors.
“One issue I see far too often is the façade of trials being sold as fully-scaled commercial solutions,” wrote Mr Holland. “Often conducted in tightly controlled environments with exceptional manpower requirements, trials can give an unrealistic picture as to the near-term potential of the technology. The contention comes when individuals and investors outside of the drone industry are exposed to the marketing content produced during these trials. Compound this with additional advertising of other products and services and a lay person would be well in their right to wonder why their Saturday night takeaway is still being delivered by scooter.”
We do not know whether Mr Holland has a crystal ball, or whether, after fifteen years in the industry, he is just good at his job; but a few months from his predictions and we are here: the long and short of it is that it has not been a good few days for delivery drone aspirations of two prominent companies in Europe – DHL and Amazon – whose pilot projects now lie dead in water; or are on the verge of collapse.
First with Amazon, because they are owned by the world’s richest human being who can afford to take himself to space just because why not. Also, because they hired sleek publicity professionals to overhype their Amazon Prime Air delivery drone project in the United Kingdom, which made people believe that the company was well on its way to beating the competition of Google and UPS in the race to unmanned aerial parcel delivery.
As it turns out, all the noise was too loud because Amazon – at least on this particular UK project – were beating the proverbial empty drum whose sound and fury signified nothing at all.
As reported by Wired last week, the UK office of Amazon’s drone delivery project now faces an uncertain future, as over 100 workers have lost their jobs while others have been reassigned to other projects outside the country. Parts of the operation have now been closed.
“Insiders say that cracks first began to show in the Prime Air project in late 2019 amid a constant reshuffling of workers and managers,” the Wired report says in part. “At the time, the drone team was segmented into three divisions that analysed footage for different threats: humans and animals, other man-made objects in the sky and 3D mapping, which helped drones know the difference between a lawn, and say, a swimming pool.
“In those final months of 2019, former workers claim there was a near constant churn, from entry level employees to managers. One former employee described having three different managers in the space of one month as staff and senior members of the team were reshuffled or moved out of the Prime Air project.
“They also say that many of the newly appointed people were lifelong Amazon managers who specialised in logistics or warehouse operations and had little to no knowledge of the technicalities of the work being done in the project. The former employees say they could never approach managers for help with any kind of technical problems on the project, because they did not know how to help them.”
Besides the hiring of management personnel that might have had good intentions, but were ultimately really the wrong people for the job, the report quoted another employee lamenting that the project started collapsing inwards because Amazon “piled too much on, they put people in charge who didn’t know anything about the project and they oversold. It’s all one gigantic oversell – just so many promises that can’t be kept.”
Meanwhile in Germany, another delivery giant DHL, pulled a shocker when it announced that it was stopping all development work on its delivery drone project, the Parcelcopter.
The announcement came as a shock because DHL has been working on this project for eight years since 2013, and they still have it as an ongoing operation on their website as we write this.
However, DHL spokesman Alexander Edenhofer is said to have confirmed to local media that his company was “not continuing the parcelcopter project.”
Although “important insights” have been gained, the company says regular operations were no longer intended.
These developments have obviously set tongues wagging in dronesphere, as to whether investors are being sold pies in the sky with regards to the actual delivery date of delivery drones in the developed world.
That delivery drone technology is a viable undertaking has never been an issue – several medical delivery operations in Africa by start-ups like Zipline, Wingcopter and Swoop Aero have proved the potential of drones to one day expand into general parcel delivery.
The question is not if, but when this will happen.
And according to Holland, we might have to wait a bit longer if we want to see a perfect aerial drone logistics at work in first world urban areas. Obviously, they are worlds apart from the African rural areas where the delivery drones are usually the only artificial bird flying for miles on end.
There are very good reasons why the European Union has set up a number of projects to research on the best ways to integrate drone technology in its busy skies. All the joint projects like this and this, between EU aviation authorities and stakeholders in the industry have the single and respectable goal of seeing that drone technology is safely and seamlessly introduced into the already busy skies.
It is not a walk in the park.
“We can all get excited about how drone technology has improved exponentially over the last few years but many challenges still remain,” Holland says. “Don’t let the ‘one-off’ demonstrations convince you otherwise. As an industry, we are working tirelessly to unlock the future of drone use. However, in my opinion, we are at least five years away from seeing on-demand, repeatable, and commercially sustainable drone delivery across all types of airspace.”
And even with such a timeline, regular aerial deliveries might not even come to fruition if organisations continue to bungle like Amazon did by hiring people with no aviation experience, who think unmanned aerial logistics is just the same as other modes of transport like roads, rail and sea.
Aviation is an understandably severely controlled industry; consequently, with all the regulatory obstacles jutting out unannounced all the time, the need for employing people with real experience in this area becomes obvious. This is a fact that is only now becoming clear to non-aviators who might have harboured the delusions that setting up aerial delivery operations in busy cities would be a walk in the park.
However, David Benowitz, the Head of Research at drone consulting company Drone Analyst, is of the opinion that regulatory authorities would also do well to try and meet the delivery sector of the drone industry halfway.
“We have seen drones for last mile deliveries dominate the public perception of what drones can achieve in the commercial space for years now, dating all the way back to when (Amazon founder, Jeff) Bezos initially claimed Amazon would provide drone deliveries by 2019,” Benowitz told TechRadar.
“While we have certainly seen some advancements in this space, the regulations lag behind and existing delivery networks have gotten more sophisticated. I don’t expect drone deliveries to never happen, but they may only play a big role where it is economically beneficial to use them.
“In the meantime, it’s important for the world to know just how much work drones are doing in fields like public safety, infrastructure inspections, agriculture mapping and spraying, and so much more.”