Delivery drones are often characterised as a key part of the future of online retail, but according to Paul Clarke, CTO of online grocery giant Ocado, they won’t be bringing goods to your door for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not ruling out delivery, I’m just saying it’s a way to go before the technology and everything else is there,” he told Verdict.
“Do I think 35kg of groceries, a typical Ocado order, might fly over your head any time soon? No, because there’s significant safety and legislative challenges to overcome. Drone technology and battery technology isn’t there yet. All sorts of supporting infrastructure has got to be built, like automated air traffic control systems, air traffic control corridors for drones.”
His comments are in contrast to proposals such as Prime Air, a concept from Amazon that was first presented in 2016 but which has so far failed to bear fruit. And according to Clarke, these types of drones are very unlikely to be making deliveries in the near future.
“Speak to anybody who is in the drone industry and they’ll tell you that large drones will not be landing near human beings because they’re far too dangerous. The bigger ones will take your head off,” he said.
“So it’s inevitably one of the areas where it’s a very, very faddy technology. There is quite of hype and quite a lot of talk about applications that are at the moment unrealistic.”
Beyond delivery drones: Other applications in online retail
However, while delivery drones are not going to be in action for a good while yet, Clarke argues that this “shouldn’t put one off being interested in the technology itself”.
Instead he believes that the technology’s value lies elsewhere, with Ocado itself already using drones in their automated factories, where robots move across vast grids of products known as hives to assemble customers’ orders.
“We think drones are very interesting; we use them for a number of purposes already: surveying, observing, flying over these huge robotic hives where there’s only a 60cm gap between the robots and the roof beams,” he said.
He also sees limited potential in the delivery of smaller goods, particularly in remote areas, where safety issues are less of a concern.
“For some other applications, flying blood plasma around the place or maybe for our general merchandise business where we’re selling small items individually it could be interesting and clearly companies around the world are looking at that and experimenting in countries where the worst that would happen if it fell out of the sky is it might hurt a sheep,” he said.
“But there’s a lot to do and we’re keen to stay very much in touch with that technology and use it ourselves, but also stay plugged into research that’s coming out and trials that are going on. So it’s relevant but it is not going to be happening soon for large grocery orders.”
While the technology remains under-developed for large deliveries, there is ongoing work on delivery drones that could increase their benefits.
For example, engineers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev recently developed a hybrid robot drone that can both fly and drive along uneven terrain. Meanwhile ground-based delivery robots are seeing growing use, particularly those developed by Starship Technologies.
The latest issue of Verdict’s digital magazine dedicated to artificial intelligence, Verdict AI, includes an in-depth interview with Paul Clarke on Ocado’s automated factory and plans for future technology. Read it here.