[The Future is Now] Drone delivery is closer than you think

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[The Future is Now] Drone delivery is closer than you think

A drone takes off from the rooftop of the Yeongwol Post Office in Gangwon, carrying a 5-kilogram (11-pound) parcel. It flies 2.3 kilometers to the Byeolmaro Observatory on top of Mount Bongnae and returns in 21 minutes.

The drone was taking part in a trial led by Korea Post on Aug. 8. It would have taken a mailman two hours to drive on the curvy, mountainous roads to deliver a parcel to the same destination.

Drone delivery in mountainous areas requires highly accurate aviation technologies due to various elements that will sporadically disturb the flight, such as the sudden emergence of valleys and tree branches. It was the first time that a parcel delivery using an autonomous drone at a consistent height of 150 meters (492 feet) above ground was successfully carried out in Korea.

Residents in remote and alienated areas, such as mountains and islands, will receive parcels and mail earlier than before, and mailmen will also be able to struggle less with time and labor should the plan materialize.

“We expect 10 percent of the entire workforce of 20,000 mailmen to use drones for delivery by 2021,” said Kang Seong-ju, president of Korea Post.

But will any of them lose their jobs? Kang says the scenario is not being considered. Instead, additional employees may be required for drone control and management.

Drones are one of the alternatives to traditional means of delivery that Korea is opting for in the near future as e-commerce demand has exploded, but the workforce for logistics is set to decrease over time. The logistics market, which launched in Korea in 1992, has grown 230 times in volume over the past 26 years. Drone delivery is considered a promising area, and Korea hopes to commercialize the system in a decade or so.

Among private businesses, CJ Logistics has been pioneering drone delivery. It has developed a drone for use inside warehouses, dubbed CJ Sky-Door, which is capable of learning routes to fly inside the space and monitor inventory. The new drones and a system using them have been tested at a CJ logistics center in Gunpo, Gyeonggi, since last year.

Even though Korea has the world’s seventh most advanced drone-related technology for defense and farming, drones for delivery are still in their infancy, according to the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade. By comparison, land-based drone delivery already exists in some cities outside of Korea.

“Several companies are testing their potential ranging from package delivery - Amazon Prime Air - to providing emergency support services - Flirtey and Zipline - where drones can be used to deliver supplies in remote or otherwise difficult to reach areas,” said Anshika Jain, an analyst with Counterpoint Technology Market Research, in a January report. “This is critical in situations where conventional overland or air supplies are difficult due to availability, resources or difficult terrain.”

Industry insiders have been citing complicated issues as reasons for drone delivery adoption being relatively slow: regulations and the potential danger drones poise when flying in densely populated areas with high rise buildings, such as Seoul.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport hasn’t sat still. It has revised aviation safety laws to allow drones to fly at night after approval and promised budget support - up to 1 trillion won ($885 million) by 2022 - over the past year. Earlier this year, the ministry vowed to build drone test sites nationwide over the next couple of years.

But technology matters the most for the country to see commercial drones prosper, experts say.

“Outstanding engineering students land jobs at Samsung and LG after graduating from university, and those firms have no intention of making drones,” said Shim Hyun-chul, professor of electrical engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “Drone developers in Korea blame restrictions, but it’s often just an excuse. If you talk about regulations, China has more, but it is the No. 1 country in the world for drones.”

BY SEO JI-EUN [seo.jieun@joongang.co.kr]
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