Jeff Bezos made a splash this week announcing Amazon was embarking on an ambitious plan to leverage for civilian purposes the cutting edge drone technology heretofore used only by the military. The big idea, torn straight from the pages of science fiction, involves using fleets of small, automated drone aircraft to deliver retail orders to customers directly. In theory, one could place an order via Amazon.com and have it delivered to them, same day, via Amazon drone. This plan may still qualify more as a fanciful scheme than a reality, but that doesn’t mean TMS solution providers shouldn’t take notice of what this portends for the future.
While this announcement was more likely a publicity stunt than anything else (as myriad obstacles stand in the way of realizing this inspired plan), there can be no denying that the march of progress carries forth unfettered. As with any new and market-disrupting technology – in this case drone aircraft – there will most definitely be consequences that influence the way entrenched, existing technologies operate. Consider how copper wire telephone backbones were impacted by the emergence of the Internet for example.
For the logistics, supply chain management and transportation industries, the emergence of this new shipping mode will surely have an impact on day-to-day operations. It’s not a matter of “if” as much as “when” this will happen. Those organizations that “pooh-pooh” the idea saying, “that’ll never happen” will fare much worse than those that begin to think about it today despite the fact that it may be years before it comes to fruition. This is precisely why the engineers at Ultra are already musing about what kind of changes they’d have to effectuate to their transportation management solutions in order to accommodate the emergence of drones as a mode of shipment. But how can diligent early-adopters prepare for the practical applications of a technology that is still subject to so many variables in its evolution?
As Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen notes in a piece naysaying the Amazon drone delivery scheme, the use of drones in this fashion – even if cleared by the FAA – runs counter to Amazon’s business model which relies on distribution centers located just outside of populated areas to take advantage of lower cost real estate prices for these multi-million square foot facilities. With a range of only 10 miles or so, Amazon would have to make prohibitively costly changes to the locations of its DCs in order to realize this goal. And that is but one of the many significant obstacles to this fanciful plan.
Regardless, as a thought exercise, Ultra engineers gamed out the extent to which the process of optimizing routing and dispatch of delivery drones could be automated; and how that information would be captured and recorded by the parcel function of the TMS solution of tomorrow. They discussed how scheduling would be addressed to ensure that deliveries were not simply dropped off at erroneous locations or without confirmation. They spent time considering how returns might be addressed. After all empty miles in the air are just as inefficient as empty miles on the ground. While no concrete plans could be effectively produced for addressing the transportation management needs of an as-yet unrealized shipping method, the exercise helps keep Ultra developers thinking about the next set of challenges facing shippers. In this way, Ultra continues to stay ahead of the curve.