On Friday morning, Australia Post tweeted a video of a flying robot with a parcel attached to it. The caption: “Could remotely piloted aircrafts, or ‘drones’, be the future of parcel deliveries?”
Australia Post has been running a two-week trial with South Melbourne robotics company ARI Labs to develop drones that can deliver parcels to your door.
According to Ahmed Fahour, CEO and managing director of Australia Post, the trial is, “Another exciting example of how we’re looking to the future with emerging technologies to make life easier for our customers”.
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They need to be. Over the past few years, countless news stories have documented Aus Post’s public struggles to stay viable as its core services are swallowed by technology.
Aus Post is working closely with both ARI and the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (or CASA) on the project.
“These are not toys. They have to be flown by trained pilots,” says Aj Missaghi, co-founder and CEO of ARI Labs. “Safety is at the centre of everything that we do.”
Each drone has a parachute, lights and sirens to warn people if they get too close, and is operated by pilots in a nearby delivery vehicle who can monitor the environment for hazards via a video system. There is a two-kilogram limit on deliveries, and a 30-metre distance must be kept from all people and buildings.
Missaghi says customer trials are definitely on the cards, but only after they’re satisfied everything is 100 per cent safe. “We have total confidence in our technology,” he says.
For its part, Australia Post is well aware of where its customers have gone, and what they want from the business.
“Today’s online shopper expects to receive their purchase whenever and wherever they want,” says Fahour. But the drones are not just about convenience. For customers living in remote parts of the country, drivers would be able to fly packages to their recipients from the closest road.
“We do think there are opportunities for time-critical deliveries, or where there are significant distances between the road and front door,” Fahour says. Urgent delivery of medications is another possible use.
The use of drones to make deliveries is being tested elsewhere, with both Google and Amazon looking into the viability of commercial drone use.
“We’re taking a different approach to Google and Amazon,” says Missaghi. “They started development with no regulatory involvement. We’re making that our priority.”
Google announced Project Wing in 2014 and has been granted a patent for its “mobile delivery receptacles”. If regulatory rules for flying commercial drones are finalised this year, Google could be using drone delivery in the US as soon as next year.
Amazon is currently in testing stages of its drone delivery product, Prime Air, which is designed to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less.
Both Fahour and Missaghi denied that the drones would affect jobs. “If anything, it will create more jobs and add on to the existing Australia Post fleet,” Missaghi says.
Hopefully, he’s right. In September 2015 Australia Post announced a full-year loss after tax of $222 million. While addressed letter volumes fell 7.3 per cent, parcels revenue rose 3.6 per cent to $3.21 billion – delivering more than half the total revenue for the first time.