How does he do it? Father Christmas. Santa. This Christmas he will deliver presents to 1.6 billion children requiring him to visit 5556 homes a second.* Now that should be a logistics nightmare. Not only the quantity of deliveries, but also the bulk of those deliveries, the package tracking to make sure they get the other right place and the variety of delivery requirements. And not all chimneys are alike by any means, if there is a chimney at all. Then throw in a mince pie and a glass of whisky/brandy at every home and that is a perfect storm of logistical challenges. But he carries it off, year after year, with barely a hitch.
I’ve been puzzling about this for a while. And then suddenly it came to me. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. UAVs. Drones. Of course! Why didn’t I think of it before? In his secret snow-bound facility, Father Christmas has been pioneering drone deliveries for years. The penny finally dropped when I saw on Sunday that Amazon had revealed its new prototype drone for its Prime Air delivery system. It offers speed, efficiency and personalization. Amazon is of course not alone with such ventures with Google, DHL and Walmart amongst also trialling drone deliveries, along with a host of smaller enterprises.
Now I’ve heard some naysayers question why these companies are bothering with drones. There are a lot of hurdles: there are regulations to consider; the technology is still early with limited carrying capacity; there are safety concerns over collisions with other airborne things and each other; landing conditions are not standard; and people find change difficult. But these companies have no choice. They are being forced to innovate deliveries, like so many other services, by the expectations of customers. From Uber to Airbnb, Apple to Dropbox, Evernote to Tesla, companies are setting customer expectations at higher and higher bars. And Father Christmas has set the mother of all high bars with his logistical wizardry. Not only that, but he’s feeding the beast! Rich Swayze, the US Federal Aviation Administration’s top man in charge of policy, international affairs and environmental matters, expressed concern recently that a million Americans will find drones under their trees on 25th December.
So Rich is worried as are many of his regulatory peers. But regulators need to realise that there is a lot of pressure on companies to make ever faster deliveries. At the moment regulation is not keeping up with customer demand. For instance, in the UK, the drone has to remain in line of sight and within 500 metres of the pilot. But drones are capable of much more than that. Amazon and its competitors have a way to go before they reach Santa standards, but Amazon reckons its drones will be able to fly distances of up to 15 miles and reach altitudes of 400 feet. This offers the potential of even faster deliveries - within 30 minutes of ordering. Customers love that idea.
There are signs that things are beginning to move. Although Amazon is still at testing phase, the first US government-approved drone delivery has already successfully transported 4.5kg of medical supplies by Flirtey drone to a rural health clinic. And in the UK, the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, who now I think about it has a passing resemblance to a beardless Father Christmas, has already called on dronesto solve the online delivery problems caused by too many delivery vans.
It’s a credit to regulators around the world that they have so far every year turned a blind eye to the flagrant breach of drone regulations by Father Christmas. But a closer collaboration between regulators and commercial organisations is needed. As customer expectations grow ever more demanding it surely won’t be long before drones are delivering packages all year round and not just at Christmas.
*The Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair who teamed up with economists from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).