Drone delivery a milestone for SingPost, but what next?
By Benjamin Cher October 13, 2015
- SingPost’s first drone delivery test flight was successful
- Other factors hinder the viability of drone delivery
SINGAPORE mail and delivery service provider SingPost announced its successful maiden drone delivery test flight on Oct 8, to deservedly much fanfare. The test flight was just two kilometres, and the payload – how cool is that? – consisted of a letter and a T-shirt.
The success of the test flight does put the future of the drone industry in much better light, with its proposition of creating business value beyond just taking videos or photos.
Getting approval from the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) committee – the multi-agency committee set up by Singapore’s Ministry of Transport to develop a regulatory framework around drone operations – for such a test also bodes well for the industry.
“Generally, it tells the drone industry that the UAS committee is open to having such an idea implemented, despite our stringent laws on drones in Singapore,” said Ong Jiin Joo, chief technology officer of Garuda Robotics, a company aiming its platform-agonistic drone solutions at businesses.
READ ALSO: SingPost to acquire US logistics company Jagged Peak
SingPost’s next frontier
While the drone industry might be abuzz with the positive result of the drone delivery test flight, for SingPost itself, it was just part of a line-up of innovations stemming from its digital transformation programme.
“As SingPost transforms its declining mail business into a leading end-to-end e-commerce solutions provider in the region, we look towards innovation and technology to grow our footprint,” its digital services head Bernard Leong (pic) said.
“SingPost will continue to push boundaries in its transformation drive, and seek greater collaboration with industry leaders to chart new frontiers,” he told Digital News Asia (DNA) via email.
The success of the test flight has proven that with a proper framework, commercial secure drone delivery can work in Singapore, according to Leong.
This successful delivery now brings what Amazon previously teased at, to a reality of sorts. The US e-commerce giant has been touting Amazon Prime Air, which it describes as a “future delivery system” using small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.
The future ain’t here
But it would still be a while before you can expect your package to arrive by drone, with factors like economic feasibility playing a large role, according to Garuda’s Ong (pic).
“There are two parts to the ‘feasibility’ issue here,” he told DNA via email.
“One is whether it can be done at all, and that’s what the [SingPost] test flight has shown – that it can be done,” he added.
The weight, distance and safety constraints are engineering challenges that companies like Garuda Robotics like to tackle and overcome, Ong argued.
“The other [part] is whether it’s economically feasible,” he said, adding that this would matter on the urgency of the item being delivered, and whether consumers would be willing to pay extra for it.
Another factor to consider is the landscape and environment. Singapore’s heavily built up and urbanised landscape might seem like a nightmare for drone deliveries, with the danger of drones colliding with buildings.
However, this urbanised and dense landscape might be more suitable than a rural area, Ong argued.
“An urban landscape, if designed with safe air passageways in mind, is actually a better environment to enable last-mile drone delivery,” he said.
“It has the necessary infrastructure for power, safe and well-known areas to take off or land (think helicopter pads), and the distance the drone needs to cover is less,” he added.
Rural areas with their wide open spaces instead might be too far apart for drone deliveries to be effective. Ong also pointed out that the larger the distance the drone needs to cover, the less weight it can carry.
SingPost has ruled out the possibility of drone delivery being an immediate offering, citing a lack of infrastructure and economies of scale. The company is still exploring the feasibility of drone delivery within Singapore.
The test flight was done to a nearby offshore island (Pulau Ubin) and not within mainland Singapore.
“SingPost will explore the feasibility of a drone mail and packet delivery in the future,” Leong said.
“Key considerations include commercialisation, technical viability, regulatory and safety protocols,” he added.
Currently, there is no single limiting factor that inhibits drone delivery, according to Ong.
“Every incremental development in standard drone technology improves the capacity, maximum distance, and safety feature of delivery drones,” he argued.
Regulatory framework loosens
Regulations around drones would have to adapt and transform to enable the reality of drone delivery.
Ong reckons that as long as the numbers line up, more drone deliveries will definitely be on the cards.
“Payload restrictions and current regulations can enable this first flight to Ubin, i.e. in the near term. As long as the economics make sense, one might expect to see more drone deliveries happening,” he said.
Singapore currently requires drone operators to get a licence if the drone weighs more than seven kilograms. However, Ong believes that this regulation will change in time to enable more uses for drones.
“We believe the regulations will evolve cautiously towards enabling business activities that create economic or social value,” he said.
The SingPost drone used in the test flight was a concept drone, hence Leong was unable to give any details on plans to roll it out to other markets.
However, this drone delivery marks yet another milestone in SingPost’s digital transformation moves, he declared.
“Right now, we are in the early days of drone delivery, but this is part of a bigger next wave in digital transformation,” Leong said.
“We will continue to tap on technology and innovation to accelerate our digital transformation,” he added.
To watch a video of the SingPost Alpha test flight, click below:
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