As the spotlight turns towards optimising supply and delivery chains in pharma logistics, Swiss Post has distinguished itself as one of the early movers in trialling autonomous drone logistics for commercial purposes. In March 2017, the company and its partner, Matternet, received clearance from the Swiss aviation authority to fly unmanned drones transporting blood between two hospitals in Lugano. Moreover the results from the initial test phase, involving more than 100 autonomous test flights, appeared to validate the value of drone transport in terms of safety, practicality and reliability.
“We envisage promising uses and a wide array of differentiated applications for drones”
Jan Denecker, UPS Europe
“Drones are playing a role in three different fields,” reasons Marc Hasler, Swiss Post’s head of product and market development. “The first field is for special value or critical goods. That’s where health and pharma come in. The second is special locations that are not on the main delivery axis. For example, currently we drive up to each chalet in the mountains, which takes basically a minimum of 20 minutes up and the same down, maybe just for a single customer. So drone is an interesting option for delivery for theses types of remote locations. The third is emergency deliveries. For example, if someone is in the forest and has a sugar breakdown and is logged with a health diagnostic watch, we can see something is going on and we know his GPS coordinates so we could deliver something to him.”
Other logistics specialists are fast coming to the similar conclusions. “We envisage promising uses and a wide array of differentiated applications for drones,” confides Jan Denecker, marketing director healthcare at UPS Europe. “Potential functions are manifold. Internally we have been deploying drones inside some of our warehouses to check stock levels or available space and this has resulted in notable efficiency gains. Externally, drones can also be utilised to transport products from one location to another that might be more difficult to reach otherwise,” he explains.
Indeed his company is currently conducting a project in Rwanda where they leverage drones to deliver blood products to different transfusion centres across the country, given the sheer logistical challenges of delivering blood products on time and in appropriate condition due to poor and unpredictable infrastructure. “We have 15 drones that are used for postpartum haemorrhaging. In this case, the transfusion centre sends an SMS, and within half an hour they can get the required blood,” explains Denecker.
In other instances, the objective is more about trigger incremental efficiency improvements. “In the US, we have been trying out drones to deliver packages in very rural settings. We have developed a delivery vehicle combination with a driver and a drone. The vehicle goes to deliver at one location while the drone delivers a package to a different location. This actually increases delivery timeliness,” he says.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that the logistics segment is undergoing significant disruption and transformation. “I think we’re really starting to reassess how we do things and reconsider the traditional modus operandi,” reflects Hasler. “Let’s not forget that drone use is just one of a suite of recent technological innovations seeking to utilise autonomous systems whether that be delivery robots or intelligent shuttles.”
It may be some time, however, before postal drones become the norm because significant obstacles remain to a more widespread adoption of this novel technology. “In many countries drones are prohibited; the lack of a clear legal framework is thus the main challenge,” warns Denecker. “And while we see a lot of promise from drones, they can’t ever replace our uniformed service providers, who can make thoughtful judgments about whether a package can be left securely, receive a confirmation of delivery signature, move heavy items, or enter a multi-tenant building to leave packages with the mailroom attendant,” he admits.
Writer: Louis Haynes