If Jeff Bezos is fixated on automating delivery of goods from “store to door,” it should be no surprise that the businesses that operate the world’s largest freight boats and planes are researching ways to eliminate cost through automation.
So, where are we headed? Cargo planes and boats, unmanned, on autopilot or remote control, ready to deliver goods at a reduced cost. If smaller drones can be remotely controlled by pilots in a central command center, we can expect that larger unmanned vehicles could be controlled from thousands of miles away as well.
Companies like Rolls Royce are already investing in this future, saying drone cargo ships would be more efficient, more enviro-friendly, and less expensive to operate than the massive freighters that carry most of the globe’s cargo today.
Navigating a 1500-foot long boat full of giant shipping containers is a complex undertaking. The emptiness of the vast, unpopulated ocean, however, make computer navigation of a vessel practical and simpler.
Envision a completely automated supply chain. Factories with robots manufacture goods that are automatically loaded into driverless trucks. These rigs will carry goods to ports where robotic cranes will stack containers on ships without crews. The entire chain of getting goods from store to door would be touched by only one human – the customer making the initial purchase.
Here are 5 ways that cargo drones will shape the future of big-load transport in the not-so-distant future:
1) Save Money
According to Bloomberg, human crews make up almost 50% of the cost of operating a cargo ship. If automation can save that amount of money, we expect a major trend toward cargo drones to arrive soon.
2) Eliminate Human Error
In an idealized future of complete automation, robot-staffed factories will crank out goods loaded into tractor-trailers without drivers. These will transport shipping containers to ports where robot cranes will load them onto crew-less ships. The same process will reverse itself on the receiving end, where the entire supply chain could be set into motion by online impulse buys made by the only human connected to the whole process — the consumer.
3) Keep Humans at Home
Shipping companies can set up command centers to act as pilots of a vessel. Rolls-Royce, for instance, is setting up a “virtual bridge” of a ship, offering 360-degree views from a boat’s bridge. Imagine captains in Kansas City commanding one of these massive vehicles with no water in sight!
The military already uses pilot-less aircraft regularly. It’s not crazy to think that unmanned cargo planes are around the corner. Unmanned cargo planes do not need costly life-support systems to keep cabins pressurized. Additionally, drones could increase safety as most crashes are caused by human errors.
4) Deliver Goods to Places We Wouldn’t Normally Go
Remote areas of the world, such as oceanic islands, Arctic regions, or troubled or remote areas of Africa, are often inaccessible due to poor communications and transportation networks to those locations. Simply put, it’s either too dangerous or too costly to ship goods there regularly.
Unmanned aircraft or seacraft can perform just fine in extreme conditions.
5) Monitor & Protect Transportation Lanes
Companies, law enforcement agencies or safety organizations could use drones to monitor sea lanes. Early identification of potential pirates could keep cargo safe. An advanced Coast Guard drone could gather information, capture images, and “give eyes in the sky” all while saving money and time over sending out a human-led patrol. Companies could keep a watchful eye on wildlife (think migrating whales) and make adjustments for environmental concerns if needed.
Admittedly, a completely automated supply-chain, led by cargo drones, has many hurdles to overcome. Unions, safety concerns, lack of centralized computer networks and platforms, to name a few. When the paths are cleared for drones and mass transport, however, the implications are enormous.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com