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Drones - will they ever leave the launch pad?


Recent trends in technology have tended to proceed along a clear path. 


Reports first emerge of sci-fi technology  (see anything from universal translation to the fabled McFly hoverboard), then companies push to bring them to market as high-end luxury items, until the price drops to the point that they become accessible to the general public. One of the clearest examples of this is the trajectory of drone technology. Flying cars may still be a way off yet, but for £30 or so one can buy and fly a craft that a few years ago would have seemed fantasy.


Taking artistic wide-lens holiday snaps and racing through abandoned warehouses aside, drone tech clearly has powerful implications for a number of applications. One of the most eye-catching demonstrations we’ve seen recently was Intel’s demonstration at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 closing ceremony. Intel created an unmanned aerial show with 1,218 drones to represent stars in the sky coming together to create skiers and snowboarders, plus the Olympic rings. While this was extremely clever and the pre-recorded footage was impactful, a question over flight time remained unanswered. With current tech, therefore can drones stay airborne long enough to be useful for business – and ultimately for consumers?


Over the last few years, there’s been an uptake in organisations trialling drone technology delivery. With the likes of Amazon Prime Air and Google Project Wing spiking media interest a few years ago, more and more drone delivery startups have taken centre stage. Israeli startup Flytrex will shortly be rolling out the first fully operational autonomous drone to deliver food and consumer goods in Iceland, while California-based Starship Technologies are already sending fleets of food delivery robots across their own campus and Washington D.C. sidewalks.


The next challenge for these companies is clearly scale; despite local successes technology has yet to be been rolled out across more than one area. Drone technology has the potential to really change up the customer delivery service, but trials need to start venture into different areas to show they can go further.


Scaling up, while dealing with increasing interest from regulators: transport safety, privacy, consumer trust, and even concerns over noise, litter, and eyesores have slowed adoption. Additionally, companies are coming up against the challenge of how to accurately map the changeable landscape that is a busy urban sidewalk, where vendors and stalls can pop up and disappear day-to-day. Privacy concerns for consumers have come into play, plus various technical and regulatory measures that haven’t helped speed up use of the technology. For example, no one has visibility of which drones are flying where, or who is controlling them. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the White House is preparing legislation that would allow federal law enforcement and homeland security to ‘disrupt or neutralise suspicious aircrafts piloted from the ground’. While these laws are intended to protect the public, it puts a clear blockage in the path of unfettered drone delivery development.


The clear benefit of drone tech for commercial business comes from being able to satisfy increasing consumer need for instant delivery. Drone deliveries, however, are not the only game in town when it comes to quick drops. At Unilever Foundry, we believe that drone technology has the opportunity to be disruptive, but there are other effective, efficient, methods of delivering goods and services for consumers that we have already started to explore. We recently teamed up on-demand delivery startup Quiqup with Hellmann’s to test a new direct-to-consumer model. Tapping into Quiqup’s on-demand delivery crews and by targeting shoppers who are likely to make ‘impulse purchases’, the service allows consumers to choose their favourite recipe and get all fresh ingredients delivered to them directly within the hour. Making for speedy, safe deliveries that customers love.


Drones are brilliant. They’re one of the genuine “sci-fi-today” technologies growing so quickly, and they have proven their value to a number of sectors in the last few years. However, many hurdles remain ahead of mass adoption and commercial use and while we believe in the great potential of drone tech, there are alternatives that area readily available to satisfy consumers with speedy delivery options. Needless to say, we’re continually looking for innovative companies with sky-high ambitions that can help us to improve the way in which consumers interact with Unilever’s products.

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