Last-mile delivery in rural areas: the place to be for innovative IoT solutions

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Numerous projects are being put in place to reduce delivery time in urban centers (to less than 20 minutes), but what is it like for rural areas? Will the gap between the free instant delivery on one side and paid 3+ days delivery on the other increase?

The last-mile of delivery is the most costly part of the process, both in urban and rural areas, for different reasons — traffic congestion in the first and large distances in 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.

Technical possibilities for rural and suburban areas

In most French villages, for instance, old-fashioned bakeries have already been replaced by a truck driving across several villages to deliver bread every day at regular timings, or the bread depot in a restaurant or any other shop still open. This is similar to the logic of lockers hub or autonomous ground vehicles.

Contrary to the 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 (in Canada) in remote areas, like islands or mountains. This way of delivery minimises the risk of drone drop on someone’s head to 0, flying above the sea or totally uninhabited areas, as well as reduces 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 system like what3words, a grid system in which the whole area is covered by 3x3 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.

Multi-usage of delivery robots in rural areas

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…), 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 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 (a sports hall, a garden team, etc.).

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, post. So its ownership 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 main obstacles for now

The lack of cellular connectivity 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, but about to be solved. Especially if data exchanges are thought to be as quick as possible (you can very often have 3G antennas, even far from each other, to communicate light data efficiently.

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.

It’s not rural areas where you count most of the early-adopters. I’m not even thinking of the drone or self-driving truck delivery, but upstream, there are fewer online orders — most of the inhabitants are the elderly. So the minimum viable market to test innovative solutions isn’t there. The Covid-19 is accelerating some kind of inverted rural exodus, a tendency that started already several years ago. It could 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 most of the human contact. It is considered a sociological and psychological issue. The medicine delivery becomes faster and more reliable, but the human contact with the pharmacist disappears.

The time is now

As delivery is soon to be available 24/7, cheap and quick in smart cities, it will become a 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 the legislation on autonomous vehicles and drones is still balbutiating, there is a window of opportunity to perform privilege legal tests of autonomous drones and vehicles in rural areas. The window of opportunity is limited but there is a way to reverse this vicious circle (fewer services — exodus — less interest to implement new services) with a strong political determination.

Ressources:

McKinsey & Company — Parcel delivery, The future of last-mile — September 2016

Delivery Robots or Smart Rural Development — Gunnar Prause, PhD (Taltech) and Ivan Boevsky, PhD (New Bulgarian University)

About me // French Marketer who specialises in B2B tech and IoT. With the background of lobbying and over 10 years experience as creative director, I help IoT start-ups achieving stable growth, meaningful branding and long-lasting demand generation. More on www.dxm-agency.com

French Marketer specialised in tech and IoT / Malmö and Warsaw / dxm-agency.com

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