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Send in the Drones: Air Delivery to the Rescue


by Don Stephens
October 2, 2015
Field service productivity

Amazon has recently announced that it’s received the Federal Aviation Administration’s blessing to begin testing a drone delivery system in the Seattle area. This makes me wonder if the speedy drone shipment method might find its way into field service as well.



A broken machine is an expensive paperweight


In field service, a machine on the fritz can mean customers miss deadlines, and this can have a negative impact on the business’s bottom line. Because a lot of modern day equipment is highly complex, field technicians in many industries would have to drive eighteen-wheelers if they wanted to arrive at a site with all the parts necessary to keep uptime at a premium. But because techs can’t do that, and because techs aren’t always clairvoyant about what might be needed, they sometimes have to rely on UPS or Fedex to deliver that missing nut, bolt, or widget. And even that isn’t always good enough; waiting 24 hours for next-day delivery is simply too costly for many businesses.

Let the drone do the driving


The tech’s other options are to drive to the warehouse, or to order a taxi to bring the part, but these aren’t ideal either. Traffic congestion can turn a drive to the nearest parts centre into a half-day mission or worse – undesirable for most jobs, especially critical ones. Productivity suffers every time a service rep goes on a parts run. Not having to waste hours on the road is something most techs would look forward to; they could be performing preventative maintenance instead of being stuck in traffic. Drone delivery would certainly benefit techs working in the field.

Those pesky limitations


Amazon says that its drones will be limited to a five pound payload and a ten mile radius of the nearest warehouse. Both of these restrictions would make the majority of field service applications a non-starter. The weight limit might be satisfied on occasion, but companies can’t afford to locate parts distribution centres within ten miles of all their customers. The FAA has also limited drones to day deliveries only – yet many critical need customers are in production 24 hours a day.

The making of a field service drone


As with all ground-breaking innovations, drone delivery will evolve. Military drones carry thousands of pounds and can fly for hundreds of miles. Of course, they are also the size of light aircraft, but the key here is that the technology is already available. It’s only a matter of time before it finds its way into the private sector.

However, public acceptance needs to be brought into question. Because unmanned aircraft must fly at a lower altitude than those that are manned, drone-filled skies might cause a backlash and end the program altogether.

Cost will also be a significant factor to consider. A long-range drone would be cheaper than helicopter delivery to an oil field worker servicing the North Slope. But with all of the delivery trucks on the road already, will drone shipment prices make it anything more than a novelty for the well-to-do? This is yet to be seen.

Only time will tell if unmanned delivery systems will take parts and supplies to field service personnel who work on deep-sea oil derricks or other hard-to-access locations, or maybe even to a printer repairman like me, who hates to drive in heavy traffic for a critical need part.
Author


Donald B. Stephens has over 30 years of field service experience working for the Xerox Corporation. He is also a freelance writer, novelist, blogger and wisecracking humorist. His hobbies include: hiking, dark beer, fine Scotch and getting schooled by either of his two children on the Xbox.

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