Dr Bernard Leong, Head of Post Office Network and Digital Services at SingPost talks about the lessons the postal services group has learnt from its groundbreaking trials with drone delivery.
On 27 Sep 2015, a joint team from SingPost and IDA Labs (now IMDA’s PIXEL Labs) completed a secure authenticated mail and packet drone delivery from Lorong Halus to Pulau Ubin.
SingPost’s exploration of drone technology is predicated on our desire to understand the technology of unmanned aerial vehicles, to provide enhanced end-to-end solutions for urban logistics of the future. We want to help build an ecosystem of startups and multinational companies that encourages the development of a technology-driven new economy, as envisioned by Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative.
At the company level, drone delivery is a potential solution to our manpower challenges. Pulau Ubin was not a random destination for the test flight. We had recalled our oldest postman, then 73, twice from retirement to deliver about 40 letters a day to the island’s residents. Drone delivery would also complement our efforts to upskill our postmen, so that they continue to be an important part of SingPost – and Singapore.
Re-imagining postal services
When we embarked on the project, we asked the questions: “What does drone delivery mean in the world of a postal delivery network? How do we re-imagine it based on what we have done in the past?”
Traditionally, in postal delivery, we have a sender and a recipient. At the recipient’s end, a key is required to open the mailbox to collect the mail. In our Pulau Ubin trial, we deployed a drone that flew two kilometers to a landing zone on Pulau Ubin where a postman waited with a smartphone to authenticate that he is the rightful recipient.
The drone is programmed so that only when it receives the authentication signal, will it land and allow the intended recipient to collect the package. If the signal is not received within three minutes, the drone would return to the delivery base.
Notably, this innovation was borne from our experience in developing a mobile application that allows customers to unlock their POPStation parcel locker with their smartphone.
The Regulatory Challenge
I have newfound appreciation for Singapore’s regulatory framework after taking up invitations to consult for other postal organisations in the world, such as US Postal Services, and their regulators. SingPost Alpha would not have happened without excellent public-private partnership.
The project required alignment of several government agencies and this was not easy. The PIXEL Labs team helped mitigate regulatory challenges on proving airworthiness. At the same time, we persevered to find solutions so that the regulators would be satisfied that the flight would be safe.
One important hurdle was the need for a secure frequency for the navigation system. This was to enable the drone to travel beyond four kilometers out of the line of visible sight. Had we not been aligned with both aviation and telecommunication regulators concurrently, the project would have failed.
Solving the Urban Puzzle
Every now and then, I am asked at conferences when drone pizza delivery will become a reality. Singapore is a highly dense country and it is not conducive to fly drones within the city itself.
Postal organisations around the world are almost certainly going to accelerate the deployment of drone delivery in remote locations. Within dense cities such as ours, however, cyber security and airworthiness present clear challenges.
Solving the urban logistics challenge will require an ecosystem of parcel lockers, self-driving cars and drones that are each deployed to solve different pieces of the complex puzzle. The best applications for drone delivery lie in reaching remote locations, such as the offshore islands, and cross-border eCommerce. Second, we need the economics to work for the logistics companies.
When we first constructed SingPost Alpha, the cost of the drone was about S$1,500, with equipment that could pass regulatory requirements. Two months after the flight, at a conference hosted by Alibaba Cloud, I saw the same drone at half the cost. Moore’s Law is applying to drones and when drone costs go below S$100, and we have a 5G mobile network, the economics will work out, and this could be within the next three to five years.
One key takeaway from our experience is the importance of developing the technology hand in hand with the regulatory authorities, not just within Singapore but also those of other countries.
Indeed, progressive regulatory support for operators and startups to conduct the kind of experimentation SingPost did with Alpha will be critical to accelerate the development and commercialisation of drone delivery.