Drones = New Data Auditing Challenges

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Last week’s announcement by Amazon that it is trialing a new drone-based delivery system – aptly named Amazon PrimeAir – to have goods of up to five pounds in weight delivered and in the hands of their customers within thirty minutes created a stir.  In fact the buzz of excitement and the interest generated by news articles, blogs, and opinions could easily have been mistaken for the sound of incoming drones instead! Just kidding…

This is a radical and groundbreaking idea for Amazon and the services industry as a whole.  It provides them with a distinct competitive advantage: from where else can you place an order from such a vast inventory of goods and have it delivered, to your home or office, at such a rapid pace? Let’s face it, even pizza and other fast food deliveries will struggle to match this level of service and they still have to contend with one of their greatest hurdles for delivering to customer homes: traffic.  Not only is Amazon seeking to deliver exceedingly good service but their drones won’t have to navigate the complex and congested road networks: they will simply fly there.  Street-level routing suddenly becomes a thing of the past so UPS and FedEx best be on their guard!

This idea is still somewhat elementary and potentially several years away from becoming a reality because even Jeff Bezos – Amazon’s Chief Executive Officer – sets the expectation that “… it will be another four or five years…” before this becomes more than just a dream although it seems that this is probably more to do with the FAA than with the technology itself.

Despite all of the buzz and the hype, there is a more serious aspect to this that involves the convergence of two industries: field service management and data tracking/auditing, and here’s why: there are no people.  Clearly that’s an obvious statement but it presents significant management and control issues to service businesses where data collection, clarity, and understanding are to become absolutely imperative so let’s explore three of these in more detail.

  1. Proof of Delivery – or POD as it’s more commonly known suddenly becomes more of an issue.  The data can notify the business that the drone has arrived but does the customer actually receive the package in their hands?  If they do, what do they sign, and who can enforce the signature process if there’s a dispute or a refusal from the customer to sign?  Without clear and accurate data, who’s to know exactly what’s happened especially if the drone returns empty but with no proof of delivery?
  2. Drone Down – it’s bound to happen.  A technical malfunction perhaps or maybe even shot from the sky by bandits but at some point in the future, one of these drones could just fall from the sky and never reach its destination but where did it crash? How can it be retrieved? Do you send another drone to collect the casualty or send service technicians to find it (welcome back street-level routing)? And assuming that the drone is found (GPS tracking data is essential), what about the product; is it smashed or stolen?  And someone needs to alert the customer that their delivery has failed so this may take a bit longer than thirty minutes.  Let’s also hope that the crashing drone didn’t hit a person on the way down…imagine the insurance liability and potential personal injury (or death) damages that this presents to the service business.
  3. Customer Not At Home – admittedly this shouldn’t be too much of an issue because, after all, the plan is to have the product delivered to the customer within thirty minutes so the customer will surely still be at home, right? Probably not always because we all have to “pop out” for a few minutes which happens to coincide with the drone’s arrival.  But now what?  Does the drone wait for a period of time for the customer to return? The data will tell the service business that the delivery has failed but how will the delivery be rescheduled?  Here the likes of UPS and FedEx have an advantage because at least they can “leave the package with a neighbor” but it’s unlikely that the drone will have this flexibility and decision-making capability.

Overall Amazon is developing a brilliant idea but surprisingly the flying and delivery drones themselves seems like the easy part.  Managing the operational aspect currently looks like a bit of a nightmare and without data, nothing will be simple!

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