Justin Patton, director of the Auburn University RFID Lab, comments on the potential impact of a Google spinoff’s drone delivery system which is being tested in rural Virginia. The subsidiary, Wing Aviation, is the first drone operator to receive government approval as an airline, allowing it to drop products to customers.
Do you expect drone deliveries to be successful?
Yes, on a limited scale. Last mile delivery (the final bit of the supply chain from the local post office or package carrier’s facility to your house) is the most expensive part of the supply chain, and new options that could impact that cost and difficulty are always welcome. There’s still a lot of things to work out, like where to pick up and drop off, how to handle large or heavy items and how people will react to large numbers of drones flying around their neighborhoods, but for some items and areas, it makes a lot of sense.
What would be the impact on delivery companies like FedEx and UPS?
I don’t think it would be significant in the short term. Someone still has to get the items through the whole supply chain from its source of manufacture overseas, to the warehouses and retailers in the U.S., to the local centers and then finally to the customer’s house. Think of it this way, it’s 8,700 miles from a factory in Vietnam to a local delivery center in Memphis. It may be 2 miles from the delivery center to the customer’s house. That’s .0002 percent of the total distance that item travels. To put that in context, if that journey was the height of the Empire State building, the last leg to the customer’s house would only be about 4 inches.
Google plans to sell and deliver from local merchants. How much of a boost could the merchants expect?
That’s a great question and it depends on what they’re selling. If they’re selling to other businesses (for example, an auto parts store to a mechanic), there may be a dedicated delivery spot and it should work well. For consumers, I believe we have a lot of infrastructure and process issues to resolve, but it may help those local merchants be more flexible and competitive.
How would drone delivery affect the overall supply chain for products?
I don’t think it will have a huge operational impact on the current supply chain, especially internationally, but it may have a significant impact on cost. Last mile delivery is the most expensive part of the supply chain in terms of both time and money, and anything we can do to improve that will have significant benefits to the consumer. Cheaper is always better, and everyone likes cheap (or free) shipping.