In the 1990s, the availability of internet revolutionised the e-commerce industry.
Two decades later, the industry is on the cusp of the next big change with the arrival of drones.
In the US, Europe and China, drones are changing the name of the game when it comes to quick and efficient delivery of goods and services, be it the Amazon Prime Air – a drone delivery system to deliver parcels in less than an hour, DomiCopter to deliver hot pizzas or Manna drones that deliver groceries in Ireland.
For UAE residents, too, the reality of a dozen unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) hovering over their heads with delivery packets, and swooping down on their doorsteps to deliver make-up or medicines is not far off.
Companies and industry experts say the Dubai Programme to Enable Drone Transportation will add a fillip to the drone industry and its commercial use for delivery of goods and services in the country.
The initiative announced earlier this week by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, aims to explore the use of drones in several sectors, including health, security, shipping and food.
The programme seeks to position Dubai as one of the smartest cities in the world and reduce carbon emissions generated by traditional shipping and transportation methods.
A unique pilot area will be allocated in Dubai Silicon Oasis for innovators and related entities from the UAE and abroad to develop and test new drone solutions and transform them into effective services that improve people’s lives and help achieve national economic goals.
DHL, a global shipping giant that is already using drones for special transports in certain regions in China, said the new initiative by Dubai will boost the sector.
“While we are piloting unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in some areas to augment delivery with point-to-point and automated operations, we are yet quite some way off from completely replacing traditional ground-based transportation. The recently launched Dubai Program to Enable Drone Transportation will certainly be a fillip for the sector,” said Burak Ertuna, CIO, DHL Global Forwarding MEA.
He told Khaleej Times that UAVs are a safer, more cost-efficient and quicker solution for niche requirements that can be unsafe or inaccessible for people - such as enabling remote inspection of warehouses, outdoor assets, and infrastructure, including rail networks and pipelines.
According to him, property surveillance, inspection and inventory continue to be the strongest use cases for UAVs today and in the near future.
UAE companies gearing up for UAVs
Many companies - both in the private and public sector - in the UAE are taking the lead and using drones to enable efficient and faster delivery of services.
For instance, Department of Health (DoH) - Abu Dhabi announced in September this year that the emirate will adopt drone technology to distribute and transfer medical supplies within the healthcare sector.
Drones in the supply chain will be utilised to safely transport medical supplies, medicine and blood units, vaccinations and samples between laboratories, pharmacies, and blood banks located around the city.
The initiative, a first of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa, is a collaboration between the DoH, the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), SkyGo and Matternet. It aims to build a delivery system and network utilising drones at 40 sites over the year 2022.
Even though drone technology is still nascent in the public sphere, Abdulla M. Alashram, Group CEO of Emirates Post Group (EPG), said it is one of the emerging technologies that will grow exponentially considering the increased popularity of drones in recent times.
“Emirates Post Group is exploring opportunities to utilise drone delivery services in our efforts to embrace emerging technologies. The adoption of drone technology for deliveries in the near future would be in line with our efforts to reduce carbon footprint and initiatives to implement sustainable technologies to enhance our operations in the UAE and expand our delivery network,” Alashram told Khaleej Times.
Since drone technology is gaining popularity rapidly and the use of autonomous aircraft becomes more common, he added that there will be a need for strategies that would regulate and ensure efficient traffic management in the urban air space.
Meanwhile, for the effective deployment of electric vehicles for sustainable transportation, he said the company is also developing strategies to sustain infrastructure development.
“EPG has recently signed an MoU with BrightDrop, an electric delivery unit incubated by General Motors, to work with them in exploring the latest technological developments in the electric vehicles sector. This is in line with EPG’s commitment to transform courier delivery and last-mile solutions in the country and promote a more dynamic, optimized, and eco-friendly services,” said Alashram.
Pandemic spurred demand for door-to-door delivery
One of the service sectors that is expected to use drones in near future is the food delivery industry, which has grown exponentially in the last year with the onset of Coviod-19 pandemic.
Onur Elgun, Vice-President – Strategy at talabat MENA, said talabat will collaborate with relevant government agencies to create a strong and robust use case that will benefit “all aspects of our delivery ecosystem - our customers, our vendors and our riders."
"When we talk about drone delivery, we are really talking about a wider conversation - the future of delivery mobility in Dubai, and the UAE - which isn’t just limited to aviation. We are truly honoured and excited to have signed a partnership with the Dubai Future Foundation and other government agencies to explore this future together,” he said.
With the pandemic triggering an extensive demand for door-to-door delivery, even companies like Danube Home that is into home furnishing, said they are looking to explore new, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways of transportation.
“Drone delivery is an effective method to meet the new demand of customers,” said Sayed Habib, head of e-commerce and franchise at Danube Home.
“In the home improvement industry, there is a scope of using drone delivery for the large variety of cash and carry products including home décor, home ware and kitchen accessories. Thirty per cent of our sales come from these cash and carry products. Hence, the drone delivery system and the Dubai Programme to enable drone transportation will be beneficial for Danube Home,” he said.
The process of warehousing, stocking and distribution can also become efficient with the operation of drone technology, he added.
“Adoption of drones in the transportation and delivery system across UAE will not only increase efficiency, effectiveness and value of time for businesses,” he said.
Ways Dubai has used drones effectively
>> Sterlization: Dubai used drones to sterilise public areas in the emirate during the pandemic
>> To catch Covid violators: Dubai has used drones to catch violators of Covid-19 safety and precautionary guidelines.
>> To monitor desert camps: Sharjah Police has been using drones to monitor whether visitors to the desert are following Covid protocols
>> To distribute seeds: The UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) has carried out a drone-enabled local planting project
>> To catch criminals: Police in Sharjah and Dubai have used UAVs to arrest wanted criminals using facial recognitions.
How to apply for drone license in UAE?
All drones need to be registered with GCAA. Individuals and organisations that own a drone can apply online. For registration and requirements, contact the GCAA Aircraft Registry Unit by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at +9714-2111710 and +9714-2111526.
Rabih Bou Rached, founder and CEO of FEDS Drone-powered Solutions, shared insights about the future of drones.
How do you think the Dubai Programme to Enable Drone will help the drone industry?
It holds tremendous impact on the industry— it recognises drones for their potential and brings it one step closer to assimilating it into our daily lives. I've always mentioned that one day, you're going to have pizzas delivered by drones with the announcements of these policies that reality seems closer.
How do you think the e-commerce industry will change with the arrival of drones?
You can say that the e-commerce industry is closely tied to technology— it was widespread access to the internet which gave rise to the industry. So, as technology advances exponentially, so does the industry. These advancements make it easier for consumers and retailers alike, and the integration of drones will only push e-commerce to new frontiers. We live in an instantaneous society, we all want our purchases handed to us as soon as possible. Drones will make that happen.
What are the advantages of using drones in delivery?
The apparent advantages are drastically reduced delivery times - imagine ordering a coffee online to have it delivered still piping hot. But that's not all. You get better conversion rates by being able to provide a more fulfilling experience and businesses save time and money on last-mile solutions.
The most important benefit is sustainability. Battery-operated drones can be powered by sustainable or renewable energy, which cuts down on emissions and the carbon footprint of your deliveries. With drones, you can avoid using non-biodegradable plastic for packaging, which in turn cuts down on the level of plastic used in packaging.
What are the challenges that companies will face?
The three main challenges are regulations, infrastructure and weather.
The UAE has some of the most innovative and advanced drone rules and regulations globally; there are many more fascinating prospects, and drone uses to be discovered, and the UAE is leading the way.
When it comes to infrastructure, this addresses questions like, where does the drone land? Are there flight corridors? The new policies announced by the UAE cements the commitment to building the infrastructure that drone and other advanced technologies can take advantage of.
Weather is the factor we have the least control over. However, here in the UAE, we are blessed with clear blue skies for the majority of the year.
Which are the main sectors that will use drones?
Well, you have transportation. No one wants to spend hours stuck in traffic and drones could solve that. We've already seen countries pioneer the use of drones to transport medical equipment, be it organs or vaccination. Drones cut down transit time into just minutes, which can make a huge difference.
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