Martyn Fisher on what benefits drones can deliver to your business


Consultancy powerhouse PWC has predicted that drones will lead to a £42bn increase in UK gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030, with 76,000 of these ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ flying across UK skies in 12 years’ time.

The report claims that using drones will save wholesale, the retail trade and foodservice around £7.7bn, resulting in an increase in GDP of around 2.5% – more than any other sector, primarily because of the benefits they will bring to transport and logistics.

Elaine Whyte, UK drones leader at PWC, said: “Using drones to automate routine tasks will also enhance safety performance, reduce risk, improve quality and free people up to focus on more interesting and value-adding work. It follows that the sectors that will enjoy the largest productivity gains from drones will be those with a high proportion of operational processes that can be automated and/or involve physical movement of goods or people.”

She added: “The scope of delivery drones could also be beyond dropping off parcels in the ‘last mile’ of client logistics. Drones will be ubiquitous in warehousing and able to autonomously conduct real-time stock checks by scanning inventory. This will integrate seamlessly with other ground-based autonomous warehouse robotics in an end-to-end management and movement of inventory, driven by AI with no human touch.”

Internet shopping giant Amazon made its first delivery by drone in the UK early last year. The package, sent to a farmhouse on the outskirts of Cambridge, contained popcorn and a video-streaming device.

Although the project has made little progress since then, Amazon’s ambition to use drones for deliveries is encapsulated in a patent making plans for airborne fulfilment centres. These aircraft act as motherships, cruising at altitudes of up to 45,000 feet, and launching flying delivery robots capable of delivering goods in a matter of minutes.

The patent listed several potential uses for the warehouse blimp, such as delivering food or merchandise to sports fans in a stadium’s stands or a meal delivery business, where ‘perishable items or even prepared meals can be delivered in a timely fashion to a user’.

Whyte says that to make the best use of drones, wholesalers must develop a data-driven culture and ensure that data captured by drones is seamlessly integrated with other digital systems to provide insights and enable actions to be taken at the right times. There will also be a greater need for data scientists and robotics engineers and an increase in the value placed on human skills that cannot be replicated by machines, such as creativity, leadership, problem-solving and emotional intelligence.

Whyte poses four questions to consider about integrating drones into your logistics operation:

How vulnerable is your business model to drone-driven disruption and how soon will that disruption arrive?

What game-changing openings are there in your market and how can you take advantage of them?

Do you have the talent, data and technology needed to do this?

How would you build transparency and trust into your drone platforms and applications? l


Mike McGee, The Whole Sale Co

“I get that drones are great for emergency deliveries of medical supplies, parcels and time-sensitive material. Maybe the café that runs out of teabags could get a drone delivery, although would the cost justify it?

“What I do not see is how it can benefit the day-to-day business of wholesale, unless the drone size upscales very significantly. Of much more interest are driverless delivery vehicles that use renewable energy, addressing the substantial issues of delivery costs, congestion and so on.

“Wholesale first needs to get some IT fundamentals right, such as smoothing the supply chain from supplier to customer, eradicating costs and increasing efficiency. A bit like beacons, drones are an interesting technology that may well be useful at the margins, in some cases, with some customers. But there are much bigger medium-term wins.”


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