Game of Drones: Are UAVs Still Useful in Supply Chains Today?

Robert Brice
Tue, Mar 3, 2015

The Federal Aviation Administration released new regulations regarding drone usage for domestic commercial use. According to these new rules, drone operators must abide by the following guidelines:

  • Drones cannot fly at speeds in excess of 100 mph
  • The unmanned aerial vehicles must weigh less than 55 lbs
  • They are only allowed to fly during the day in good weather or clear skies
  • Drones are banned from flying close to airports at any time
  • UAVs must be within visible sight of the operator

The regulations come at a particularly interesting time, as CBS reported last December that e-commerce giant Amazon had prototype plans to release a drone delivery system within five year's time. When the news first broke, consumers everywhere were delighted with the notion of same-day delivery. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the drones would drop packages right on the customer's doorstep, with some deliveries occurring within the hour of the transaction, depending on location.

From a manufacturer's standpoint, drone technology had a chance to dramatically impact the supply chain for the better. Drones could reduce overhead and improve logistical operations by making quicker deliveries and cutting delivery costs dramatically. Product orders have to be broken down individually before they make their final destination, which can prove to be a challenge for any kind of manufacturer. The concept of drones, prior to the recent FAA regulations, seemingly made sense and could tangibly improve the supply chain.

Not All Is Lost With Federal Guidelines
While the news of the FAA's regulations came as a blow to some in the manufacturing industry, technology website ZDNet suggests there are a few instances where supply chains can take advantage of drone technology and improve production. 

For example, supply chains can use drones, per the FAA guidelines, to monitor their assets. In fact, asset monitoring is already happening in the agriculture, mining and oil and gas industries, to name a few. As Popular Science points out, drones are even being used to enhance cartographic efforts in remote areas as well as managing cemetery maintenance, among other things. Drones can help supply chains with the monitoring of assets that are outside of the facility, such as crops or other survey work. 

Drones can not only help with mapping remote areas, they can also deliver to excluded residences and outposts. Supply chains can take advantage of drone technology for remote delivery as well, which can also dramatically reduce costs. This does get tricky, however, because these drones are likely flying outside of site lines of the operator. Supply chains currently taking advantage of this technology may have to alter the ways they use drones, as remote mapping and delivery gets tricky in terms of keeping the machine within site of the operator. 

Future Supply Chain Benefits of Drone Technology
However, as the technology continues to mature, the FAA may likely loosen their regulatory policy. For example, military-grade drones have live video feeds viewable from a control center miles away. The same type of technology could very well make its way into commercial-grade drones in the coming years, which would perhaps limit the need for a constant line of site during a supply chain delivery system.

ZDNet suggested two circumstances where supply chains could take advantage of potential rules amendments down the road. The first is a smaller window of delivery for certain items. Big-name merchants, retailers and manufacturers would be able to deliver products right to the customer's door. If and when drones become a more viable option along the supply chain, manufacturers and merchants could dramatically benefit and ship purchased products right from their storefront location and to the customer's home.

Coupled with the rapid maturation of mobile technology, drones could also deliver products to people on the road. Using location-based services, drones could possibly link up with a smartphone and drop a product off to a customer who isn't at his or her home. Consumers who cannot seem to wait for their package to be delivered can send their exact coordinates to a drone and it will fly its way to the waiting customer, his or her office or wherever they may be at that particular time. While amendments to the FAA guidelines are strictly hypothetical at the moment, supply chains can dramatically benefit from regulation changes if they happen in the near future.

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