Providence: America's drone delivery pioneer?

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Drones are the new iPhone. Everyone has to have one. Whether you are an extreme sport enthusiast, travel photography nerd, or a business owner, they can provide an extraordinary birds-eye-view and first-class imagery. The next major innovation is the delivery industry. Besides the potential noise pollution, safety hazards of unmanned aircraft swarming around the neighborhood, and the fact that every one of them is carrying around little cameras, the real issue is, are they realistically more efficient? Although Providence wasn’t particularly close in the race for Amazons second headquarters, would it be better to be Amazon’s American drone delivery test ground?

There are a couple reasons why Providence is ideal to test out this innovative project. Most importantly, it’s an urban area. Amazon has the most to gain from drone delivery in urban areas, where sending a tiny package less than five miles currently costs around five bucks. Using drones, they anticipate that they can cut those costs to $1 per package or less. This simple reduction would pay huge dividends when sending billions of packages. While downtown Providence is a very urban area, there are plenty of additional suburbs and rural areas in and around the city for Amazon to further test their procedures. Finally, there is plenty of space for Amazon to use. We’ve all seen those big, ugly former textile buildings while going over the bridge onto East-195. Instead of sitting idle they could host a leading-edge technology project for one of the largest corporations in the world. A six-mile radius can cover a lot of ground in America’s smallest state. This could be especially helpful when making deliveries across Narragansett Bay.

The effects such a project would have on Providence are another issue. These drones can be annoying, they aren’t particularly attractive to look at, and they’re even worse to listen to. Not to mention the Orwellian fact that every single one is carrying a little camera on it. But drones in Providence also means less delivery trucks in Providence – in a city that doesn’t have the worst traffic of all time, but with really annoying rush hour traffic – we would love to see a few less delivery trucks on the road.

To turn this endeavor into an economy of scale, fulfillment centers would need to drastically increase in number, adding more facilities to service a much smaller radius than trucks currently do. Would this make fulfillment operations more efficient? Will maintaining more facilities and staff as well as a large fleet of drones be more environmentally sustainable than the current methods? We believe it is imperative that these projects are run with sustainability in mind. These distribution centers are set to use enormous amounts of energy so supplying them with the right kind of energy from the beginning is crucial.

America remains a few years away from this reality, but drone delivery is already happening in other parts of the world. A Dominos pizza was already delivered by drone in New Zealand, and passion fruit was delivered by drone to an island in China. Amazon Prime Air made its very first customer delivery in the UK in 2016. Only time will tell the future of drone delivery in America as Jeff Bezos and his innovative team attempt to revolutionize the way we get packages. Perhaps Rhode Island can become that test ground.

Colleen Peters and Peter Melanson are Blue Master of Business Administration students at the University of Rhode Island: dual Masters in Oceanography and Business Administration. Both are also Rhode Island residents.

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