Flying suppliers: When will delivery drones become established in e-commerce?

Flying suppliers: When will delivery drones become established in e-commerce?
Published on: Dec 5, 2018
Updated: Aug 19, 2022

Today, no one is surprised when small robots buzz past in the sky, because drones have long been part of Hollywood films, books, the gaming industry and a walk in the park. What used to be considered a hobby for technology freaks is now also popular with "normal people". At Mediamarkt, you can already find them on the shelves in all sorts of variations. Small drones can be bought for as little as 15 euros. But they are not just a diversified toy. Delivery drones could even revolutionise e-commerce, because they are one of the top trends in parcel logistics.

From kite to drone

In the past, kites made of paper took to the skies - today they are drones.

[tooltip title="Drohne" color="blue"]The drone takes its name from the male bee. Biologists call this a "drone". The male bee's only task is to fertilise the queen bee. After mating, the males have fulfilled their duty and usually die. So even a drone can crash without injuring any occupants. [/tooltip]

  • In the early 20th century, the military first used drones for war purposes.
  • In 2014, DHL delivered medicines to a pharmacy on the North Sea island of Juist for the first time by drone.
  • In 2016, Amazon made the first delivery by drone to end customers in England. The package contained a Fire TV box and a packet of popcorn.
  • In 2018, drones will be further developed and equipped with features so that they can withstand bad weather conditions.
  • By 2021, the market for commercial drones is expected to be $4.8 billion.
  • In 2025, China aims to put into service a long-range drone that can carry a one-ton payload and fly around 1,500 kilometres.

Since then, however, not much has happened in terms of delivery drones in e-commerce in Germany. The shipping giant Amazon continues to experiment in order to implement the "Prime Air" project. The project is about the expansion of delivery drones by Amazon. Its goal is to soon deliver parcels by drone.
DHL, on the other hand, has already tested the third generation of its parcel copter. In 2016, the helicopter drone was able to undertake 130 autonomous loads and unloads in the municipality of Reit im Winkl and on the Winklmoosalm. The drone was able to carry a load of two kilograms and fly at a speed of 70 kilometres per hour.

China is already a bit further ahead. There, the company "" already delivers food in an industrial park covering 57 square kilometres. The drone does not deliver the goods from door to door, but only from drone station to drone station. Nevertheless, it saves the deliverers a lot of time. They only have to pick up the groceries from the drone location and bring them to the customer. In parts of New Zealand, the American company Flirtey already delivers pizzas by drone.
###Performance of the 100 largest German online shops

When will drone parcels be available for everyone?

A big city with drones circling in the sky, carrying small packages under their propellers and slowly dropping them off at front doors. While this may look a lot like a scenario from a science fiction movie, it is not entirely far-fetched. A lot has already happened since the first air-based robot. Research is constantly working on the further development of the delivery drone to create new uses.
In 2016, drones learned to see and thus avoid obstacles. With a kind of sensory eye, the delivery drone can now detect objects in its flight path and fly around them. The next step is to make drones weather-resistant so that they can take off on their flight even in difficult weather conditions. This would also make them the perfect delivery messenger in e-commerce.

So far, however, only 45 per cent of Germans would choose the delivery drone in e-commerce to ship their goods - there is definitely still room for improvement.

Image 45 percent of Germans would have goods delivered by drones. (Source: Statista)

Opportunities for e-commerce and suppliers

A particular problem in the delivery industry is the so-called "last mile".

[tooltip title="Letzte Meile" color="blue"]This is the term used to describe the last route from the parcel's location to the customer. Costs of around 70 billion euros are incurred annually for this delivery route. A lot of money for online retailers and suppliers.[/tooltip]

In this area, air-based delivery robots could offer a great opportunity. Delivery services could avoid a lot of carbon dioxide that is otherwise emitted by delivery cars. In addition, the drone can avoid traffic congestion and saves a lot of time, in return for delivery by van. Therefore, the delivery drone can drop off the package to the customer as soon as possible. Medicines or blood donations could be delivered faster.

To ensure hassle-free delivery by drone, Amazon is working on some extra features. For example, the parcel drone should be able to react to people's gestures so that it can understand a waving at and waving away as a correct or incorrect delivery.

Since delivery drones in e-commerce have so far only been able to carry light cargo, Boeing is working on a flying device that will be able to carry loads of over 200 kilograms. However, since Boeing has not yet commented on the speed, range and battery charge, the drones are not expected to be used in the near future. Amazon's trial, however, shows that it is definitely possible to deliver smaller parcels by delivery drone.

What is the catch of delivery drones in e-commerce?

It will probably be a while before we receive our parcels from Zalando, Amazon and Co. by drone. One drawback could be the low payload of the drone, because even at a flight weight of five kilograms, drones may only be flown within sight of the pilot. In addition, previous drones collided with houses and trees in strong winds or rain.

Not all legal conditions have been clarified yet, which makes it much more difficult to implement the delivery drone in e-commerce. The battery capacity of the air-based robots is still not sufficient to deliver parcels over long distances. The fact that drones are not allowed to fly over residential properties or crowds of people does not make things any easier either. After all, this would be unavoidable in parcel delivery. Accordingly, retailers can probably only start their pilot projects once all these things have been clarified and drones have been developed to the point where they can also carry heavy payloads.

###Experience shipping messages in action!


There is still work to be done in terms of delivery drones in e-commerce. But the eco-friendly option is definitely an alternative. We would probably be happy to receive our parcels from a small, flying robot and even faster than we are used to. Since the delivery drone can be precisely located, online retailers always know where the order is. This way, they can regularly inform their customers about the status of the delivery. Through personalised shipping messages and fast delivery by the drone, online retailers can satisfy their customers all around.
So, like chatbots and voice assistants,it offers e-commerce a great opportunity. Although the development of the delivery drone is still in its infancy: in the future, drone research will continue to advance. The small robots will become faster, their performance greater and the price-performance ratio better. For this, however, we need one thing: patience.

More on the topic "Artificial intelligence in e-commerce" can be read in our new blog series.

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