The global drone delivery service market received a big boost overnight after American logistics giant United Parcel Service (UPS) announced that its subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward Inc., has received the U.S. government’s first full Part 135 Standard certification to operate a drone airline.

Source: ZDNet

According to the press release, UPS Flight Forward “will initially expand its drone delivery service further to support hospital campuses around the United States. UPS Flight Forward plans in the future to transport a variety of items for customers in many industries, and regularly fly drones beyond the operators’ visual line of sight.”

Australia Post tight-lipped about drone delivery services

Given the recent global boom in drone delivery services and UPS’s overnight announcement, it’s worth considering how long it could be before we see Australia Post apply for and receive a similar type of approval in Australia.

The short answer is that it’s still up in the air. Australia Post is currently keeping pretty tight-lipped about any drone delivery plans that it may have.

A couple of Australian Post delivery vehicles. Could drones soon be added to the mix?
Source: Australia Post

When Drone Advice asked Australia Post today about any such plans, a spokesperson issued the following statement: “Australia Post has undertaken a number of projects to test autonomous delivery technology in our communities, with autonomous parcel sorting already adopted in some of our major facilities.

The statement also read: “In late 2017 Australia Post trialled a mobile parcel locker over a four week period to a small number of homes in New Farm, Queensland. The trial helped us test the suitability and practicality of autonomous technology in a real space, and provided an opportunity to invite community feedback. We are still investigating the most suitable technology and designs for any future customer trials.”   

It’s predicted that the question of whether Australia Post ultimately implements commercial drone delivery services will probably depend on a range of factors. Key among these would probably include:

  • its risk appetite
  • its budget
  • its learnings from trials and commercial operations in other countries
  • the general rate of technological and regulatory progress in the sector
Source: Australia Post

Another key factor is the thorny issue of community acceptance.

Australia Post’s 2016 internal drone trials

Looking back to 2016, Australia Post trialed the use of remotely piloted drones internally in 2016, with the support of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

Parcels delivered by drone could speed up delivery times | Source: Unsplash

The hope at that time was for Australia Post to trial the service with consumers at the end of 2016. Mr Ahmed Fahour, chief executive at the time, said that Australia Post would only bring it into play once Australia Post is “100 percent sure that it’s safe and reliable”.

A 2015 survey also indicated that there was limited customer demand for drones as a delivery option.

A residential neighbourhood | Source: Unsplash

It’s not ultimately clear why Australia Post never proceeded to consumer trials. However, the outcome was not surprising given the significant technological and regulatory hurdles facing those who effectively want to operate a drone airline. A 100 percent safety case may have also been a bridge too far for the government-owned business.

Australia Post takes more baby steps in 2017 and 2018

In 2017, Australia Post said that it would seek permission from CASA to conduct a second round of trials of drone-driven parcel deliveries following advancements in drone technology. They outcome of these trials, assuming they went ahead, isn’t publicly known. 

In 2018, new chief executive Christine Holgate revealed to a Senate committee that she had been discussing the use of drone technology with international players, including Swiss Post.

Public conflicted over use of drone delivery technology

Fast forward to 2019 and significant technological and regulatory hurdles still remain.

The court of public opinion is also ambivalent about whether drones are generally even welcome in neighbourhoods. There’s also big philosophical question about what type of deliveries should be allowed to be made by drones. Expect there to be no shortage of opinions on this point.

Anecdotally, it seems as though there may be more community acceptance for drone deliveries that provide medical benefit and less appetite for those that bring commercial consumer goods like fast-food and coffee.

Vital medicines | Source: Unsplash

The issue of neighbourhood amenity has been a topic gaining increased media attention in recent times and one that may impede the rapid rollout of drone delivery services nationwide.  This is mostly due to the entrance of Wing, the drone delivery arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet, to the commercial drone delivery market: chaotically at first in Bonython (ACT) and then more carefully in other parts of the ACT and parts of Queensland.  

Australia Post Drone delivery
Specs for the Wing delivery drone | Source: Wing

Concerns about safety, privacy and noise are among three of the most thorny issues topping the laundry list of community concerns over Wing’s operations, as exposed in the recent Government Inquiry into Drone Delivery Systems in the ACT. These general issues and concerns will need to be considered, debated and addressed very carefully by regulators, industry and the numerous other stakeholders in coming months and years.

Despite the concerns, there are of course many legitimate tangible benefits to certain services and these must be carefully weighed against the detriments.

Australia Post Drone delivery
Parcel delivery has come a long way from the humble horse, donkey and mule.
Source: Unsplash

The hope is that this iterative process among the varied stakeholders will ensure that drone delivery services – and drone technology more generally – is implemented into society in a responsible fashion. Currently, it seems as though there are large gulfs in understanding in many quarters of society and that widespread education about drones is needed.

Post & parcel drone delivery services in other countries

In September 2019, Unmanned Airspace released the results of an extensive survey into drone delivery services. Included in the survey results are results about the post & parcels deliveries sub-market. The results show that there are operations at various stages of developing in the following countries:

  • China
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Ireland
  • Japan
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • UK
  • USA

Logistics giant DHL, DPD (France), An Post (Ireland) and Korea Post are a handful of the big players operating in the space.  

Australia Post Drone delivery
What impact will drone delivery have on traditional courier jobs? | Source: Unsplash

It’s expected that this list of countries will continue to increase in the coming months and years as investment continues to increase, and as technology and regulation continue to play a game of leap-frog with each other.

For now, it’s very much a case of watch this airspace.

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* In the United States, a Part 135 Standard operator is a certificate holder that does not have pre-set limits on the available size or scope of their operations.

Feature photo: Dreamstime