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Why Drones Could Save Door-to-Door Mail Delivery

Canada Post is examining the use of drones in mail delivery.
A drone quadricopter is depicted delivering a package in this 3D rendering. Image: Shuttershock

In the pre-Internet era, Canada Post reigned supreme. When I was growing up, scouring the mailbox for free floppy disks to reformat for 100-kilobyte PC games was the highlight of my day. But since email became ascendant, the Crown corporation's fortunes have declined. Online shopping aside, people don't send as much physical stuff by mail as they used to.

That's the main reason Canada Post announced it would be phasing out door-to-door mail delivery, sparking a massive outcry. (The Liberals, who promised to save cherished door-to-door mail service, are now doing a review.)


Technology has hastened Canada Post's demise, but there's a chance another type of tech could give it a necessary shot in the arm. The corporation is exploring future use of drone technology to make deliveries, according to a report from the Canadian Press.

Using unmanned aerial vehicles to shuttle packages from warehouse to customer is nothing new. Amazon announced they were developing a drone delivery system, dubbed Amazon Prime Air, back in 2013. Testing is well underway. Everyone's favourite search giant is in on the action, too: Google's Project Wing promises to whisk parcels to users by 2017.

At this point, Canada Post is engaging in a "paper exercise," a spokesperson told the Canadian Press, adding that the project is in its earliest, experimental stages. (Canada Post did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.) But experiments are designed to yield results. So is it only a matter of time until Canada Post takes to the skies?

According to Graham Scott, the deputy editor of Canadian Business, even if mail-delivering drones remain a theoretical concept for now, it's inevitable they'll be considered as a way to drive costs down.

"I looked this up," Scott told me in an interview, "and in the most recent fiscal year, just shy of 70 per cent of Canada Post's operating expenses were labour costs. Just paying people to sort the mail, drive the mail around, put it through your mail slot, that kind of thing. It's a very labour-intensive business, and anything they can do to reduce the number of expensive people involved—they are going to try to do."

There are many good reasons why mail delivery drones may never get off the ground. For one thing, current technology limits them to delivering one item of post at a time, which is tremendously impractical.

"If you wanted to deliver as much mail by drone as one [mail worker] delivers currently," said Scott, "it would have to make dozens and dozens of trips back and forth." Drone batteries are notoriously short-lived. Also, some tasks require a finer touch than unmanned vehicles can provide, such as sticking mail through a slot, which means that humans will probably be part of Canada Post's logistics for a good while yet.

But, as we've seen with the rolling out of community mailboxes—a program that was put on hold earlier this year when the review was launched—the invisible hand of the market is always looking to drive costs down. So don't count out flying robot deliveries for good.

Robots and drones will be claiming more human jobs in the future, probably including mail delivery. From a manager's perspective at least, drones have their advantages. They don't suffer from dog bites, and they (ideally) don't deviate from their routes. "Drones don't twist their ankle, they don't get tired, and they don't form a union," said Scott.