The last-mile of delivery is the most costly part of the process, both in urban and rural areas, for different reasons. traffic congestion is the first and large distances are the second case. Let’s make an overview of the delivery systems (now all powered by IoT) actually used, tested, or prototyped:
- Person delivery (still mostly used): electronic signature pad
- Lockers hub (used): unlocking with phone and QR code
- Drones (testing): facing regulatory and technical (dedicated landing sites) issues
- Autonomous ground vehicles (testing): vans filled with packages driving around the city
- Crowdsourcing (like Uber): private delivery with one’s own car
- Semi-autonomous ground vehicles: a self-driving vehicle with a human to ensure proper delivery and overseeing potential issues
- Small autonomous vehicles aka droids (Starship-like): for short distances
- Ground vehicles carrying drones: autonomous van (or not) used as a base for several delivery drones that take off, land, and recharge their batteries from the van.
In most French villages, old-fashioned bakeries have already been replaced by trucks driving across several villages to deliver bread every day at scheduled times. This is similar to the logic of locker hubs or autonomous ground vehicles.
Contrary to urban condensed and packed landscapes, rural areas offer large possibilities for drone landing sites and far fewer risks of collisions and accidents. It becomes particularly relevant and is already tested (Canada) in remote areas, like islands or mountains. This way of delivery minimizes the risk of drone drop on someone’s head to 0, flying above the sea or totally uninhabited areas. This also reduces the time frame from days to hours and is cheaper.
Since people in the countryside live mostly in houses with independent mailboxes, it is also easier to test autonomous solutions. Let’s assume that delivery is processed on a grid system in which the whole area is covered by 3×3 meters squares, identified by 3 words. In rural areas, each recipient can indicate several zones corresponding to their unique property, which is impossible for people living in several-floor buildings in cities.
It is crucial to implement delivery robots in rural areas. They can’t be used to deliver Amazon packages only, as the minimum viable market isn’t there. But when shared with all kinds of deliveries (post, medicines, fresh food, catering, etc.) it becomes profitable and relevant. Thus, the main question is on the ownership of a drone. Should the drone be an element of the village public gear (as a lawnmower or a truck), and left at disposal (paid or free) of all economic actors? Or should it be implemented “as a service”?
When it comes to the rural areas in Europe, the solutions found so far that maintain the minimum of services are mobility (the bakery truck driving around several villages) and concentration (several villages join one another to mutualize some services. In a smart village of the future, the delivery drone will not only be serving international platforms (Amazon) but also be linked to local shops to deliver food, medicines, and the post.
The ownership of a public delivery drone is likely to be disconnected from the internet platform, but rather be associated with a given city or its local authorities. Delivery becomes a public service to enhance the autonomy of inhabitants, especially the elderly who are less mobile. It is a tool to help extend the autonomy of old individuals and let them stay at home rather than have them move to retirement facilities.
The lack of cellular connectivity (especially 4G) is still a strong obstacle, partially tackled by GPS but limiting the features and flexibility. The problem of white spots is still present in European rural areas. Especially if data exchanges are thought to be as quick as possible.
Long distances are an issue mainly for battery duration. A drone with a 30-minute flight autonomy needs to be 15 minutes away from the delivery spot. Therefore, technical progress in flight speed and battery efficiency is mandatory.
Rural areas aren’t known for being early adopters. Thus, the minimum viable market to test innovative solutions isn’t there. Covid-19 is accelerating some kind of inverted rural exodus, a tendency that started several years ago. It could also soon impact the number of online shoppers in rural areas.
Last but not least, the desertification of public services and shops in rural areas has already killed a lot of human contact. It is considered a sociological and psychological issue. Medicine delivery becomes faster and more reliable, but human contact with the pharmacist disappears.
As delivery is likely to be available 24/7, cheap, and quick in smart cities, it will become the new norm. While rural inhabitants tend to experience bad internet connection, they won’t be interested in this type of delivery. If this continues, the migration to rural areas will decrease. The answer can only be political.
As legislation on autonomous vehicles and drones is still balbutiating, there is a window of opportunity to privilege the legal test of autonomous drones and vehicles in rural areas. The window of opportunity is limited but there is a way to reverse this vicious circle with a strong political determination.