Drone vs Robot: Which Will Prove the Superior Carrier?


The direction the big logistics companies are moving towards for their R&D is split between drone delivery and autonomous technology investments. We explore how each are developing in the industry.

Earlier this week, FedEx revealed its interest in using autonomous vehicles to make deliveries. FedEx’s chief information officer Rob Carter, says the company is considering using small robot vehicles that could drive around neighbourhoods and make deliveries on their own. The company has partnered with Peloton Technology to achieve this goal, firmly believing this path will be the future of package delivery.

Competitors such as UPS and Amazon disagree. They have spent the last few years developing their own aerial delivery drone programs. Their aim is to have packages reach their destination through the air, instead of on the road.

Flying to New Heights

The idea of delivery drones was initially met with disbelief when Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon initially unveiled the technology back in 2013. After a long approval process, Amazon finally received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct trial runs in early 2015. The approval was likely a response to the Chinese online giant Alibaba, a major competitor, conducting its own drone delivery tests.

This event led the way for other companies to develop their own drone delivery programs, and experts weighing in on the potential benefits.

“Allowing drones to be flown for business purposes in the U.S. may produce $100 million or more in economic benefits” says Bloomberg writer Alan Levin, reporting on a FAA document. Enhanced delivery speed and eco-friendliness are other benefits expected from these programs.

Critics have been vocal about cons as well. Namely, in the areas of privacy, potential for theft of packages and the drone itself, and public safety.

Amazon conducted its first delivery through its drone program late last year. Whether the pros or cons win out is now a matter of waiting and seeing.

Driving Towards New Delivery Solutions

FedEx isn’t the first big business to invest in autonomous technology, far from it. Intel for example, is expected to have $1 billion invested in this field by 2020. Uber has jumped onboard with its acquirement of Otto, the company responsible for the successful testing of self-driving tracker trailers.

However, Carter is promising that FedEx’s program will have several distinct advantages over drones. For starters, the vans are expected to be more energy efficient than their aerial counterparts. The maximum cargo delivery limit is also greater. Finally, ground vehicles won’t have to content with the FAA for regulations and flight path approval for urban areas.

Peloton Technology’s current semi-autonomous technology isn’t far off from FedEx’s goal. It can electronically link trucks into small caravan groups called platoons. The lead truck can then control the brakes and gas of the convoy, lowering wind resistance and saving fuel.

Logistics is a multi-trillion-dollar global industry. FedEx is betting of self-driving robots as the future of cargo delivery. Given the company’s size, that’s 220 countries whose way of receiving parcels and movement of large fleets would be affected. Time will tell if FedEx’s robots will be able to streamline, automate and accelerate the supply-chain industry.

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