Wednesday 11 October 2017 4:32 pm

Here's why mass parcel drone deliveries are unlikely to take off in London

The likes of Google and Amazon may be plugging investment into developing drone deliveries, but the capital isn't likely to be filled with them anytime soon.

Not according to the professor of logistics at Kühne Logistics University, anyway. Alan McKinnon says there are a couple of key reasons why urban drone delivery looks set to be pretty niche.

Speaking at a meeting of the London Assembly Transport Committee yesterday to discuss the potential scope for using drones for deliveries in the capital, McKinnon said: "We will not see the sky filled with drones."

Read more: Government regulates drone usage in the UK

Why? Primarily due to a range of logistics constraints.

Compromising product range

Looking at online retail, a key asset of big players like Amazon is that they have a huge range of products and store them in massive distribution centres serving wide catchment areas. "Catchment areas of drones will be 10 to 12 miles, therefore you cannot serve a very wide area from these large areas companies like Amazon currently operate," McKinnon said.

Retailers would have to decentralise their inventory to an urban level, but McKinnon said they cannot do that without compromising the vast product range on offer. Some may beg to differ though; Amazon for one has been looking into things such as an airborne fulfilment centre to maintain an inventory of items.

Drone delivery service could take off, but McKinnon thinks it will be niche, "probably a premium service offered to those less patient consumers".

Few economies of scale

There's also the question of how economically viable they are. Drones will be limited in how much they can transport, though Amazon has said 80 per cent of its deliveries are around or below 2kg. Despite this, McKinnon said "there's very few economies of scale".

"You're delivering one parcel at a time," he pointed out. If you compare that to a standard van delivery when it can deal with 120 to 130 orders in one go, "you're getting a much more efficient delivery".

Still, while it may not be scaled up to carry out bumper deliveries, or something like groceries, McKinnon said there was scope for other markets, such as pizza delivery by drone.

As for potentially using drones to cut congestion, McKinnon wasn't overly optimistic, saying: "People arguing drones are a way of relieving urban traffic congestion are deceiving themselves."

He looked at calculating how many drones would likely be needed to reduce UK traffic levels by just one per cent, which in itself wouldn't have a significant effect on congestion, and said you'd need to put around 1.8m drones in the sky for that one per cent reduction.

Read more: Amazon wants to parachute your packages by delivery drone