Unilever, a British-Dutch consumer goods giant, which owns ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, is getting in on the drone delivery craze.
At its January 2020 investor event, Unilever delivered mini Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cups via drone to attendees. The drones carried a delivery box designed especially for the Ben & Jerry’s cups, which weighed 72 grams each. And before you wonder if the flight was Federal Aviation Administration-approved, the FAA doesn’t actually matter here: the flight was conducted indoors at one of Unilever’s facilities.
The drones were operated by Terra Drone, a company that provides drone services primarily for enterprise clients in oil and, gas, utilities, renewables, mining, construction and GIS. But yes, Ben & Jerry’s sounds like a pretty sweet client. Terra Drone was established in 2016 and employs more than 550 people, with headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, plus about two dozen other branches worldwide.
Unilever has spent the last few years exploring innovative ways to deliver ice cream, currently through its ice cream delivery service called ‘Ice Cream Now.’
Back in 2016, the company built an electric-powered refrigerated boat to deliver Magnum ice cream around Venice.
“What immediate delivery of ice cream allows us to tap into is a whole new purchase occasion that may not be in the home,” said Ajay Salpekar, vice-president of digital and e-commerce for Unilever, during an investor presentation in November. “It may be at an event; it may be at a party; and that’s an additional usage occasion that we’re interested in.”
Unilever’s Ice Cream Now delivery experimentation program is centered around last-mile deliveries, where the product (in this case, ice cream) is brought in large batches to one central place, like a warehouse, through more standard means. The Ice Cream Now component means a more innovative piece of technology (ie. a drone or refrigerated boat) brings the product just a short distance — hence the last mile.
For now, the Ben & Jerry’s delivery is just a one-off, but it could evolve into something further. But a number of companies have made major strides in the past few years from turning drone deliveries from half-baked, one-off stunts to real-world offerings. Some people were skeptical of Google after their Chipotle deliveries amounted to flying drones over a hill — not even from an actual Chipotle shop. But by the end of 2019, Wing (Google’s drone delivery arm) was able to launch drone deliveries from Fedex, Walgreens and small business Sugar Magnolia to residents of Christiansburg, Virginia. Those deliveries are done as part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
Still, a huge number of Americans don’t love drone delivery. 42% of Americans said they do not think drone delivery is a good idea. And an even higher 49% think delivery drones are too dangerous. That’s according to a study commissioned by Alexandria, Virginia-based international public affairs firm The Hawthorn Group.
But whether or not people want them, most of the public has accepted, and expects, that they are coming. According to that same study, 70% of Americans said they expect drones to begin home deliveries in the next five to ten years.