Order online, receive via drone? IoT drones are closer than you think

See how AirBox is developing Internet of Things (IoT) drones and mailboxes to solve the last-mile delivery problem and keep your packages secure.
Case Study
Derrick Wolbert
March 23, 2021
Drone hovering around in a neighborhood

Customers expect their online orders ASAP — and they want to pay as little as possible. As a result, retailers are shifting how they distribute and deliver all those packages. Accenture estimates that 70% of fulfillment will soon occur within five miles of the customer’s home.

But that “last mile” accounts for more than half of a package’s total delivery costs, spurring all kinds of innovation: electric scooters, autonomous vehicles, drones, and more.

However, solving the last mile problem doesn’t protect packages from porch pirates, lobby thefts, or rainstorms.

That’s why AirBox created an IoT mailbox that can be placed anywhere, with cloud-connected access that unlocks the box for authorized users. They’re popular in apartment communities, gas stations, restaurants — but also with couriers, auto parts dealers, vacation rentals, medical suppliers, and others. The boxes can simply be installed with little to no infrastructure, in a minimal amount of space.

But AirBoxes need cloud access to verify customer permissions and send the lock/unlock signals. That hinges on reliable, robust connectivity.

AirBox also needs cloud connectivity to enable the box itself to coordinate with the other part of their business: delivery drones.

Reliable connectivity with a global IoT SIM

Most AirBoxes are placed outside, beyond a building’s Wi-Fi range, so AirBox turned to cellular to get the reliability they needed for boxes and drones. Working directly with carriers was cumbersome and expensive. And AirBox needed to guarantee that drones would remain aloft even while passing through carrier dead zones. That might mean juggling contracts with multiple carriers (and paying for unused data) to protect against outages.

Then the AirBox team began working with Hologram.

Hologram’s global IoT SIM card enables continuous, reliable coverage across 550+ carriers in 196 countries. With Hologram, AirBox only pays for the data they use — ideal for drones or boxes that need short bursts of connectivity between long dormant periods. And that seamless connectivity lets AirBox customers install their solar-powered boxes anywhere, with no need to run power or internet.

As Brandon Pargoe, AirBox Co-Founder and CEO says, “Hologram has given us a flexibility that we didn’t have before. Customers can now begin to use that cellular-connected infrastructure, and that’s where they’ve gained the most value.”

Pargoe explains, “Our entire infrastructure is based on Hologram SDKs that end-users can implement into their own operations.” That means that end recipients can retrieve their packages with the same app used to place the order. 

How it works: from order to fulfillment

Surveys show that 77% of shoppers still want packages delivered directly to their homes. AirBox is developing a system that will allow retailers to meet this demand without the expense of couriers. With AirBox’s integrated boxes and drones, the process will work like this:

  1. Order something through a local retailer’s app
  2. The store sends your order via common ground delivery (or via drone, where suitable), rather than requiring you to pick it up
  3. The local courier or drone deposits your order in a nearby AirBox (perhaps in your apartment complex’s parking lot)
  4. The store’s app notifies you that the order has been delivered
  5. You use in-app instructions to retrieve your item

While FAA regulations allowing commercial drones are still evolving, the fulfillment box part of the process is already alive and well.

For example, home delivery is prohibitively tough in places where people lack traditional street addresses — such as on the island of Antigua. There, residents have to travel across the island to pick up their online orders. Antigua Computer Technology (ACT) has piloted the use of several AirBoxes throughout the island, and now dispatch delivery orders to the nearest box. Their customers can reduce their travel across the island to pick up their packages, and ACT can consolidate trips to save costs. (And AirBox doesn’t need to think about which carriers operate in Antigua: the Hologram global IoT SIM card has it covered.)

Online shopping, curbside pickup, and opportunity

Even as drone developers continue to prove their safety and reliability to the FAA, the AirBox team is thinking big.

After all, a December 2020 McKinsey survey finds that 40% of consumers say they intend to do more shopping online than pre-pandemic, even after things return to “normal,” and 47% intend to continue using curbside pickup. These findings delight retailers like Target who note that fulfilling an order through curbside or in-store pickup is 90% cheaper than shipping an item from a warehouse.

Restaurants are already piloting thermally insulated AirBoxes as part of a contactless experience. Customers place their orders through the restaurant’s website or a third-party app like DoorDash. Staff place the food into the AirBox and send a code to the customer, who can pull up and retrieve their food. The restaurant is notified that the order has been picked up and the box is ready for the next order.

But the real opportunity lies in automating that process and integrating drones.

As Pargoe explains, “Companies have done a really good job of getting us to the next-day type of delivery, but that is a very costly and challenging environment. So the next stage is, how do we automate that process? How do we make it more efficient? How can we have that delivery in the next hour or two?”

Dedicating a single operator to each commercial drone, as current FAA regulations require, is not scalable. However, regulations will inevitably change as drone developers prove that reliable connectivity keeps drones safely aloft (https://www.hologram.io/blog/how-iot-drones-will-be-used-in-new-ways). That creates the possibility of a single operator managing multiple drones. And as the regulatory weight limits increase, a single drone could make several stops along an optimized route.

“The next big milestone is the full automation of the process, the command and control through an entire flight mission, with the drone doing the entire delivery without a pilot in the loop,” Pargoe says. “Not only being able to navigate from point A to point B, but to talk to the box, open the box, tether into the box, slowly place [the package] inside.”

“The reason we’re using Hologram for all our testing is primarily for the flexibility.”

As AirBox continues to refine its products and processes, they’re thrilled they found a true partner in Hologram. The AirBox team is currently running several pilots, testing everything from optimal drone payloads to larger, refrigerated boxes for grocery pickups. Think about it: your packages can now be delivered by your local courier, ground automated vehicles, or drones, all while safe and secure until you decide to retrieve them. And should an unauthorized person attempt to tamper with the box, both you and your courier will be immediately notified.

“The reason we’re using Hologram for all our testing is primarily for the flexibility,” Pargoe says.

And that flexibility will continue to change — and improve — how you receive your next package.

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