Robots and Drones Delivery: Transforming Quick Commerce

Photo of Maciej Głowacki

Maciej Głowacki

Updated Sep 5, 2023 • 24 min read
drone delivery

We are stepping into an era where immediacy isn't merely a feature but the cornerstone of customer experience. The question isn't, "What do you need?” It's "How quickly can you get it?"

This seismic shift in consumer expectations has given birth to quick commerce, with drones and robots ready to take center stage. From the silent hum of delivery drones darting across the sky to the steady trundle of robots on our sidewalks, the delivery landscape is undergoing a profound transformation. These aren't scenes from a science fiction movie anymore. They're glimpses of an impending reality, set to redefine the concept of doorstep delivery.

In this guide, we zero in on how delivery drones are reshaping the quick commerce landscape. We’ll dive into the challenges, advantages, innovative uses, and a peek into the future of drone delivery.

What is Drone Delivery?

This technology represents the next frontier of logistics. Essentially, drone delivery refers to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to transport packages, food, medical supplies, and other items to consumers and businesses.

This mode of delivery is gaining traction primarily for its promise of speed and efficiency. Challenges on the ground, such as traffic jams, poor infrastructure, and geographic barriers, often hinder traditional delivery methods. Drones can quickly reach customers, overcoming obstacles quickly.

Most drones are electric, offering a lower carbon footprint compared to conventional delivery vehicles. Additionally, the potential cost savings are considerable in eliminating expenses on labor involved in traditional delivery methods.

What is Quick Commerce?

Quick commerce is a subset of ecommerce that capitalizes on speed and convenience, delivering goods to customers within an hour, or even minutes. Products typically handled in quick commerce range from daily essentials like groceries, meals, and medication to smaller consumer goods.

Rooted in the principle of instant gratification, quick commerce (q-commerce) aims to satisfy consumer demand for on-the-spot delivery. Shoppers appreciate immediacy, with 41% of consumers prepared to pay an extra cost for same-day delivery, and 24% would pay more to receive their items within a two-hour window, according to a 2023 PwC survey.

What does quick commerce look like in practice? We sat down with Milena Lazarevska, VP Commercial Quick Commerce at Delivery Hero, and Bobby Healy, CEO and Founder of Manna Drone Delivery, at Disruption Forum Retail 2021. Both experts shared their unique perspectives regarding the state of drone and robot delivery and whether these technologies genuinely have the potential to transform the retail delivery sector.

Healy is a strong believer in drones and robots for the future of logistics. “Drones don't take a tip. Drones don’t spread COVID. Drones don't invade privacy. Everything about drones is better,” he explained during his panel titled “Drone Revolution: Will They Be The Next Step in Grocery and Food Delivery?”

“At Delivery Hero, we have two flavors of quick commerce,” explained Lazarevska. “On one hand, we have our own dark stores, which tend to be the model used by the many startups popping up around Europe.”

Dark stores are warehouses, distribution centers, or micro-fulfillment hubs that cater exclusively to online shopping. These stores are referred to as “dark” because they’re closed from the public. They differ from retail outlets because they are set up solely for rapid order fulfillment. By placing dark stores close to their customer base, businesses can offer fast, on-demand order fulfillment to seamlessly satisfy consumer demand.

As to the second model, Lazarevska adds, “We also partner with all sorts of local shops: supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, florists, and deliver on their behalf. We come with an existing platform and existing customers.”

Role of drones and robots in quick commerce

As consumers increasingly rely on fast and reliable doorstep delivery, retailers face increasing pressure to adopt faster delivery systems to remain competitive.

Enter drones and robots. These technologies are positioning themselves as integral cogs in the q-commerce machine. The rationale is simple: if you want to make delivery faster and more efficient, bypass road congestion and geographic hindrances by taking to the skies or using autonomous robots.

Programmed with GPS coordinates, unmanned drones can deliver products swiftly over long distances, avoiding traffic and without needing breaks. They can service rural or remote areas as efficiently as urban ones, breaking down accessibility barriers.

On the other hand, robots, particularly those designed for last-mile delivery, can navigate urban landscapes efficiently, moving on sidewalks or specially designed paths. These autonomous vehicles can carry multiple orders at once, operate around the clock, and eliminate human error from the delivery process.

Challenges of drone delivery

As drone delivery services mature and gain momentum in the logistics, retail, and ecommerce sectors, they must navigate a landscape marked by complex challenges and risks.

  • Safety considerations: Companies offering drone delivery services have to deal with public and environmental safety issues. This is a broad area that includes managing drone traffic in congested skies, handling the impact from loss of GPS range, and responding accordingly to weather conditions, among other public safety risks. In addition, drones need to be able navigate through natural obstacles (e.g. trees) and minimize risks it poses to birds and other wildlife.
  • Infrastructure limitations: Widespread drone delivery requires a robust physical and economic infrastructure similar to commercial aviation. This includes designated take-off/landing zones, maintenance facilities, and advanced traffic management systems, which entails substantial capital investment.
  • Further technological development: At the moment, battery life, payload capacity, and weather resilience of drones are limiting their ability to perform deliveries at a wider scale. Additionally, as drones generate considerable noise, a fleet of drones can cause severe noise pollution. Flying at higher altitudes could reduce noise but this introduces a new set of challenges related to weather conditions, flight among other aircraft, and additional energy consumption. Further technological advancements are necessary to address these issues.
  • Energy constraints: Heavier packages require more electricity to transport, which impacts battery life and energy storage. With drone batteries typically made from lithium alloys, the sector faces production constraints due to broader geopolitical and natural resource management issues. Additionally, these batteries have specific storage requirements, particularly in high-heat weather. They can’t be exposed to excessive heat as this can lead to catastrophic failures, potentially causing them to explode or catch fire. These concerns point to the need for advanced energy solutions to ensure the physical integrity of drones in diverse conditions.
  • Public acceptance: There's a need for wider public acceptance, as concerns over noise, privacy, and safety could impede drone delivery adoption. Therefore, clear and transparent communication about the operations and benefits of drone delivery services, alongside stringent safety measures, is crucial to building public trust and acceptance.
  • Regulatory hurdles: Many countries still lack established rules for commercial drone usage. Addressing all these issues regarding airspace management (e.g. who has priority in heavy traffic), privacy, and environmental aspects, demand comprehensive legal frameworks.

Advantages of drone delivery

Simultaneously, drone delivery services offer compelling advantages. As we explore these opportunities, we bring into focus the transformative potential that drone delivery holds for businesses and the broader logistics ecosystem.

  • Operational efficiency: Estimates vary, but drones can drastically shorten the duration of last mile delivery by three times (even up to 20 times) compared to ground-based transportation. This efficiency is particularly apparent in areas fraught with traffic congestion or in hard-to-reach rural locations.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Despite the large upfront investment in infrastructure and technology, the long-term operational expenses of drone delivery could be lower than conventional methods of delivery. This would be important for cost-effectiveness in last-mile deliveries, which account for more than 50% of the overall cost of delivering goods to the customer. A report from Gartner found that, in last-mile deliveries, autonomous drones offer a lower cost per mile and higher speed than vans.
  • Environmental sustainability: In a study that compared the environmental impact of several last-mile delivery systems, drones had 84% lower greenhouse gas emissions per parcel than diesel trucks. Drones also use up to 94% less energy per parcel than trucks do. This aligns with the increasing emphasis on sustainability, making drone delivery an attractive proposition for companies seeking to bolster their green credentials.
  • Business differentiation: Drone delivery represents a novel service that can enhance the customer experience and differentiate businesses in a crowded market. It also opens opportunities for new business models and services, spurring revenue diversification and growth.

Examples of drone and robot delivery

Companies such as Amazon, Walmart, Domino's, and Delivery Hero are already conducting drone delivery services for their customers. These real-world applications showcase the potential of drone delivery in various verticals, from parcels to food delivery. Let's take a closer look at how these companies are implementing drone delivery operations and the challenges they face.

Amazon Prime Air

Despite the complex terrain of regulatory and logistical challenges, Amazon Prime Air has admirably managed to make headway into the future of delivery services. Launched with the vision of delivering packages to customers in 30 minutes or less, the service has completed around 100 deliveries in two U.S. markets. Although this falls short of the initial goal of 10,000 deliveries by the end of 2023, the company continues to invest in refining its drone’s capabilities.

The current model, the MK30, can handle more diverse weather conditions and extend its delivery range. It’s a smaller and lighter version of its previous iteration, the MK27-2, that has a longer range, more safety features, and the ability to fly in light rain. In addition, the MK30 will have new custom-designed propellers that will lower perceived noise by 25% when compared to the MK27-2.

While currently limited to certain sites in California and Texas under FAA regulations, the future of drone delivery for Amazon could see a rollout across many other locations.

Walmart partners with drone companies

Walmart, in partnership with Zipline and DroneUp, has made much more significant strides in package drone delivery. Zipline's fixed-wing aircraft have made 600,000 deliveries, mainly medical supplies in Africa but also in states like North Carolina, Arkansas, and Utah. Walmart also made over 6,000 drone deliveries across seven states in 2022. DroneUp, another Walmart partner, made more than 110,000 deliveries. Walmart’s drones aim to deliver packages in less than 30 minutes, and the flight routes are designed for safety and efficiency, avoiding populated areas and moving vehicles.

Manna is poised for expansion

Manna Aero, an Irish drone delivery startup, has already completed over 100,000 drone deliveries across various locations in Ireland and is trending to hit more than 1,000 daily deliveries in dense urban markets. With such success, the company is set to expand its operations to mainland Europe and the United States in 2023.

The company's latest drone model, the X-drone, can deliver up to 3.5 kg of cargo at a speed of 80 km/hour within a radius of up to eight kilometers. Each Manna Aero drone achieves seven to eight deliveries an hour, offering a solution that costs only a tenth of a human driver's expenses.

Manna's strategy involves tackling existing challenges with door-to-door food delivery. The company aims to deliver hot, restaurant-quality food via drones, transforming the delivery experience. As a testament to this, their average flight time for food deliveries over the past year was just two minutes and forty seconds.

Domino’s Pizza in New Zealand

Revitalizing its futuristic approach to pizza delivery, Domino's, in collaboration with drone technology partner Flirtey (SkyDrop), is moving into the second stage of commercial drone delivery trials in New Zealand. This step forward builds upon the historical moment in 2016, when Domino's made the world's first pizza delivery by drone from a store in the country.

Meanwhile, SkyDrop has made significant advancements since the initial drone delivery. The company has increased the drone's payload capacity to 3.5kg and enhanced its precision delivery altitude to 60 meters. To ensure safety, they've incorporated a parachute system. SkyDrop has also expanded its production in the US and received significant certifications from the Civil Aviation Authority in New Zealand.

Delivery Hero's robot delivery service via foodora

Transforming quick commerce in Sweden, Foodora, part of the Delivery Hero network, has introduced its fully autonomous delivery robot, Doora. Doora has launched its test phase in Stockholm, offering the capability to transport food and other items weighing up to 20kg. This supports Foodora's quick commerce initiatives, ensuring deliveries are completed within an hour. Powered by a battery that lasts eight hours, Doora moves at a top speed of 6 km/h.

When asked about people’s reactions to Doora, Hans Skruvfors, CEO of Delivery Hero’s foodora, was blown away. “Everyone who saw or met Doora in town was positively amazed. People seem to be more than excited about the fact that the future is here,” Skuvfors says.

The vision for the future includes hundreds of Dooras across Nordic countries and even the exploration of drone technology. However, foodora asserts that robots like Doora will complement human riders rather than replace them. Robotics and automation could create new roles such as control room operators, developers, and mechanics.

Other examples of robots and drone delivery

Below you will see different real-world applications of robot delivery, demonstrating how robots are transforming the way goods are transported:

And here you can dive into the groundbreaking advancements in drone delivery to explore the impact on the logistics landscape:

Innovative use cases for drone deliveries

While mainstream perception may be dominated by images of drones carrying packages from ecommerce giants or delivering your favorite pizza, the application of this technology extends far beyond conventional retail and food delivery. Drones are now playing an essential role in sectors that demand urgent, precise, and reliable deliveries, especially in contexts where traditional delivery systems falter.

Medical supplies and emergency response

In urgent situations, every second counts, and traditional transport mechanisms may not suffice. Drones enable the rapid transport of critical medical supplies such as blood samples, vaccines, medicines, and organs for transplantation, mitigating delays due to traffic congestion or remote locations.

In emergency scenarios, drones can deliver lifesaving equipment like defibrillators faster than an ambulance. This innovative use case isn't just about improving efficiency. It's about saving lives, enhancing the healthcare system's resilience, and augmenting the quality of care, particularly in geographically isolated or under-resourced communities.

In the UK, for example, the NHS partnered with Skyport to enable two remote hospitals in the Scottish Highlands to exchange urgent medical supplies by drone — something that would have been extremely difficult to do by land.

Adding to these innovative applications of drones in healthcare is another breakthrough technology — temi, a personal assistant robot. Developed by Roboteam and Netguru, temi is a three-foot-tall, 20-pound robot, equipped with a 10-inch screen, a state-of-the-art sound system, and advanced sensors, all powered by an Android-based operating system.

It's like having Amazon's Alexa on wheels, responding to voice commands, showing weather forecasts, sports updates, playing your favorite music, and even capturing videos. For patients with mobility issues or those needing constant monitoring, temi offers a unique combination of companionship and service, from reminding patients to take their medication to connecting them with their healthcare providers via video calls.

Disaster relief

When natural disasters strike, efficient and timely delivery of aid can be hampered by compromised infrastructure and unsafe conditions. In such scenarios, drones emerge as an innovation capable of delivering critical supplies like food, water, medical kits, and shelter materials. They can reach areas cut off by floods or landslides and drop supplies at a precise location, minimizing the risks associated with traditional aid delivery.

In addition to their delivery function, the same drones, if equipped with thermal imaging or LIDAR (light detection and ranging), can also aid in search and rescue efforts. This has the potential to greatly improve disaster response efficacy, save lives, and accelerate recovery efforts.

Construction and engineering

Using drones to deliver essential infrastructure components revolutionizes supply chain management in the construction and engineering industries. Small but crucial components — like specialized bolts, circuit breakers, or specific tools — can be flown directly to the project site, bypassing lengthy ground transportation routes and delays. This not only optimizes the delivery process but also drastically reduces downtime on critical projects.

Moreover, the precision offered by drones ensures accurate drop-off of the components even in complex environments. Whether it's a high-rise construction site in a bustling city or an infrastructure project in a remote mountainous area, drones can navigate safely and precisely, making them an invaluable asset.

Sky's the limit: The future of robots and drone delivery

Existing robot and drone delivery services are already exciting and mind-blowing, and they are just the beginning. The advancements we see today are merely the precursors to a future that is brimming with possibilities.

Firstly, we can anticipate significant technological enhancements in both robots and drones for package delivery. With advanced AI and machine learning, autonomous robots and drones will navigate complex routes, avoid obstacles efficiently, and achieve faster delivery speeds. Increased payload capacity and a longer rout range are other improvements we can expect, extending the scope of robots and drone delivery services.

Next, the rise of smart cities will further accelerate the expansion of both robots and drones in delivery services. Robot and drone fleets could effortlessly integrate into these high-tech urban environments with the deployment of 5G networks and the development of IoT infrastructure (the Internet of Things). This would allow robots and drones to communicate not only with one another to avoid collisions and optimize delivery routes but also with other components of a smart city infrastructure.

Lastly, businesses will continue to explore innovative applications of both robots and drones in delivery services beyond traditional e-commerce. We've already seen robots and drones being used in the delivery of medical supplies, emergency response, and critical infrastructure components. The future may witness these innovations serving more specialized sectors, such as delivering farming supplies in agriculture, spare parts in manufacturing, or scientific samples in research fields.

In the face of these developments, regulatory bodies will have to evolve concurrently, formulating comprehensive policies that balance innovation with safety, privacy, and security concerns.

The robot and drone delivery horizon isn't just about speed and convenience. It’s about reimagining the very fabric of logistics and commerce. As technology, regulations, and business models align, the future of drone delivery could very well be a world where the sky is indeed the limit.

Photo of Maciej Głowacki

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Maciej Głowacki

Former Retail Consulting Director at Netguru
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