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The Rise of Drones: what does it mean for drivers?

by Charlotte Freed | Oct 19, 2018

Drone delivering package
Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao described the department’s stance on drones as at its “tipping point.” With at least 100,000 pilots registered with the FAA, over 1 million active devices, and burgeoning to a $1 billion industry in the U.S. alone - the path forward is undeniable.

A pilot program extending to October 2020 meant to develop regulations for drones aims to safely integrate drones into society’s aviation space while allowing the country to “reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer,” with delivery and e-commerce seeing a large chunk of those financial returns.

In 2016, Amazon delivered the first package via drone in a total of 13 minutes from order completion to delivery. Traveling up to 50 miles per hour and able to carry goods weighing five pounds or less (accounting for 86 percent of Amazon’s products sold), the economical and fast deliveries become more attractive with each trial. The behemoth company continues to test and focus on drone delivery, having received a patent for sky-based, floating product-distribution warehouses carried by blimps. Called aerial fulfillment centers (AFCs), the floating warehouses are meant to solely exist to “maintain an inventory of items that may be purchased by a user and delivered to the user by a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] that is deployed from the AFC,” reports the patent document. Other shipping companies including UPS and FedEx Corp. are working on their own drone delivery programs, testing routes and accuracy to ensure a seamless operation.

With the driver shortage continuing to tighten, shippers are looking to driver alternatives to keep up with the demands of e-commerce and consumers. UPS says that reducing one driver mile a day can increase revenue by up to $50 million annually, but that drivers shouldn’t worry about being replaced by drones. Kyle Peterson, UPS spokesperson explains “We believe drones could someday provide opportunities for network improvements that’s generate efficiencies and customer benefits that enable us to grow our business,” adding that “drones cannot replace our uniformed service providers, who offer a level of service and human interaction that our customers tell us they value, respect, and trust.” Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability also says “Drivers are the face of our company, and that won’t change.” 

The jury is still out on how exactly drones will effect drivers. Some consider the upsides, seeing the convenience factor as taking unnecessary work off drivers’ hands and allowing them to focus on faster delivery. Others note that with the assistance of drones, the number of trucks needed to deploy will lessen and in turn, so will the demand for drivers. Regardless of these views, technology continues to careen ahead. Just like smartphones, automation, and AI have helped improve certain aspects of the trucking industry for both carriers and drivers alike, the world waits to see how drones influence shipping and the overall human experience.

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