Will Drones Fly in Retail?

The sky’s not the only limit
Once reserved for sci-fi movies and high-tech war efforts, drones are quickly becoming part of the broader landscape. Amazon made headlines with its plans to make deliveries via drone, but there’s an entire world of opportunity beyond that. Drones can help retailers in ways they’ve never imagined, from site selection and store design to security, building science and logistics. Experts say the technology is already here: As soon as regulators catch up, drones could make a big buzz in retail.Drones are generally defined as unmanned aircraft. They come in all shapes, sizes and prices, from $100 toys the size of a baseball to multi-million dollar military machines the size of a vehicle. While drones have been around for years, new technology has made them easier to operate and cheaper than ever.

Real estate agents use them to capture property photos and construction companies fly them to track progress on job sites. Drones are being used in Africa to survey wildlife populations; in China, the government is using them to crack down on polluters. Amazon wants to use drones in its Prime Air service to make small deliveries to customers’ doorsteps within 30 minutes, but rules proposed last month by the Federal Aviation Administration will likely preclude that type of usage in the United States for the foreseeable future.

Retail industry futurist Doug Stephens says technology evolves so fast that the implausible can become the norm within a few years, pointing to the Internet and smartphones as examples of technological advances that went from obscurity to mainstream adoption by consumers and retailers in a short time. Stephens says the possibilities with drones are “too compelling for retailers to ignore.”

“While we sit here in North America debating whether Amazon will eventually deliver packages by drone, DHL is already doing it in Germany,” he says. “Things that seem improbable today could absolutely become commonplace in 10 years.”

Still, drone industry experts say it’s going to be more than a few years before autonomous drones are making deliveries in and around U.S. cities.

“I think you’ll see more low-risk applications first,” says Dave Kroetsch, president and CEO of Aeryon Labs, a company whose drones are being used by international clients. “There are many things that are possible and are already happening.”

Kroetsch says a lot of things need to happen before drone deliveries can become a reality: For instance, flight times and sensory avoidance technologies aren’t quite there yet. Amazon’s drone delivery service in a large city would be complicated enough; doing so nationwide would take thousands of drones with hundreds of local stations where they can be charged, serviced and controlled by skilled drone operators. Not only is the technology not there yet, neither are the personnel to manage it all.

Uses in retail
Amazon’s effort offers a vision for new opportunities in distribution, and it’s already moving forward outside of the United States. DHL Parcel started delivering medications via drone to the remote German island of Juist last year; the United Arab Emirates is working on a system to use drones to transport government documents. Google is also testing a drone delivery system in the Australian outback.

The machines have other applications in retail, many of which are already happening. Because they’re easily operated and can put a camera hundreds of feet in the air, drones are being deployed in site selection and facility planning. They’re being used by planners, developers and real estate firms to obtain real-time aerial surveys of land and see properties and buildings from almost any angle and elevation.

Then there’s construction. Contractors use drones to track project progress and make job sites more efficient. Low-altitude aerial monitoring can allow superintendents, decision-makers and clients to spot potential problems before they arise. Retailers could use drones to select sites, plan store design, analyze traffic patterns, obtain more precise maps and better monitor all aspects of the development of a retail location.

“It gives you a better perspective. You can put a camera virtually anywhere and there’s tremendous value in that for [many industries] and applications,” says Kroetsch.

Joe LaRocca, loss prevention consultant and president and founder of RetaiLPartners, says drones could someday be used by retail security departments to patrol their properties. A fleet of autonomous drones could scan parking lots and even store interiors, transmitting video in real time to a manned control center.

“They could certainly be used on the security side for scoping out parking lots as well as in distribution centers and facilities,” says LaRocca. “I don’t think it will be uncommon in the future.”

LaRocca believes drones could also be used to track movement and shopping patterns. While retailers already have the ability to find out what’s happening in their stores, it’s difficult to read traffic flows into a store from parking lots and surrounding streets. In theory, a drone could fly above a retail location and scan the surrounding area to see how vehicles are moving toward the store. Such data could potentially be used to measure the effectiveness of signage, the positioning of entrances and the impact of traffic.

Early last year, Lowe’s announced that it was using satellite imagery to gauge traffic at its nearly 2,000 stores. The company was scanning images to find out how many shoppers it could expect every hour of the day and syncing parking with receipt data to find out how many consumers left without making a purchase. Drones could expand this sort of science by offering more precise data.

“They could really take the bubble of traffic patterning to a whole new level,” LaRocca says. “Drones could give us the ability to find out more about what is happening outside of the store, and how people are getting there.”

Drones can also help retailers increase energy efficiency. Industrial Skyworks helps clients find heat loss in large buildings by using drones equipped with thermal cameras. The technology allows them to do it faster, cheaper and in a less-risky manner than putting people on scaffolding or rooftops.

“It’s basically an MRI for a building,” says company president Michael Cohen. “Drones can offer a tremendous amount of data that can help make buildings more efficient.”

Security issues
U.S. regulators have yet to catch up with current drone technology. Anyone can legally operate a drone under “hobbyist” regulations that require them to be flown away from populated areas, within line of sight and under 400 feet in altitude. But with the exception of a few waivers, the FAA has yet to authorize drones for commercial use.

The FAA’s proposed rules, which could take up to two years to implement, would allow for drones to be used for limited commercial purposes and within a limited range: They could fly no higher than 500 feet, no faster than 100 mph, in daylight only and within eyesight of the operator.

Despite those restrictions, Mark Aitken, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group representing the UAV/drone industry, expects their use will continue to grow.

“It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when,’” he says. “The technology is already here. It comes down to opening up the national airspace and having the regulatory framework for it to flourish in every industry, including retail.”

While drones could bring great benefits for retailers, they could also bring security issues. Security consultant and crime prevention expert Chris McGoey says criminals could theoretically use drones to peer down at rooftops or over fences and walls, and conduct surveillance on retail establishments. In September 2014, two suspected burglars were arrested in Pennsylvania after police said they used a drone to survey the town police station and electronics stores.

“Most criminals aren’t smart enough to do that and I don’t think [drone-enabled] crime is going to be a major concern,” McGoey says. “But I do imagine there could eventually be some issues.”

The fear factor
Despite the positive contributions drones can offer many industries, some consumers remain skeptical and even fearful of the technology. Drones are perceived by many as spy devices. Recent crashes in crowded cities, national parks, the White House — along with close calls with commercial aircraft — have others concerned. An Associated Press poll in December found that only 21 percent of those surveyed favored the commercial use of drones; 43 percent opposed and 35 percent were undecided.

Jim Carroll is a futurist, trends and innovation expert who has worked with a number of companies including Yum! Brands and Motorola. He says while there will be big challenges in regulation and application in the coming years, drones “are coming to our skies” regardless of public opinion.

“Any new technology is going to have those who promote it” as well as detractors, he says. “Regardless of the arguments, nothing will slow the acceleration of the technology. The cat always gets out of the bag.”

Whether it’s two years from now as a security device in a mall parking lot or in 10 years as a delivery vehicle, retailers will have to tread carefully as they deploy drones. Shoppers may become accustomed to drones flying overhead to track movement, provide security or make deliveries, but it will be a slow road to win that acceptance. LaRocca says drones will be much like any other technology and will require education, awareness and time to fully integrate them into the retail environment.

“The creepy factor [with cameras in retail stores] is something that was socialized over five to 10 years before it was really acceptable. Drones will probably go the same way,” he says.

The good news is that growing factions of consumers — especially photographers and hobbyists — are adopting the machines.

“They’re already flying off the shelf at some retailers,” says Cohen. “There’s already tremendous commercial opportunity just selling them. It won’t be long before [retailers] start using them.”

Article originally posted on NRF.com

Will Drones Fly in Retail?

“I think you’ll see more low-risk applications first,” says Dave Kroetsch, president and CEO of Aeryon Labs, a company whose drones are being used by international clients. “There are many things that are possible and are already happening.”