NextGen Supply Chain: Drones, storage lockers, autonomous vehicles and national security

New technologies may be creating unintended risk. Supply chain managers need to get involved to shape policy.

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While Donald Trump would lead you to believe the most serious threat to our national security is our Southern Border, it’s not. That threat arises from several increasingly important supply chain developments, our short national memory and a lack of enlightened public policy making. These developments include the continued focus on the development and operation of larger drones for possible commercial use, the expansion of e-commerce delivery lockers in public places by Amazon and other e-commerce companies and the ongoing development of autonomous cars and trucks. The potential threat to national security posed by these new technologies, coupled with a lack of related intelligent public policy development, is increasingly putting the public at risk in terms of potential terrorist attacks.

This risk is compounded by the fact that the two federal agencies involved in developing policies to protect the public from such threats, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), seem either unaware of these risks or are unable to process that information and develop related security policies.

As e-commerce volume continues to grow and delivery time windows shorten, there has been ongoing discussion of the role that drones might play in facilitating those deliveries. The proponents of drone deliveries, most notably Jeff Bezos, have provided us with video examples of how that technology might be used to enhance the consumer experience. Drones have also become very popular with hobbyists.

The extent to which the technology has been embraced in the U.S. was shown in January 2018 when U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao announced that the total number of drones now registered with the FAA had eclipsed one million, consisting of at least 878,000 owned by hobbyists and 122,000 commercial, public and other drones. In her announcement, Chao said, “The tremendous growth in drone registration reflects the fact that they are more than tools for commercial trade, but can save lives, detect hazardous situations and assist with disaster recover. The challenge is to remove unnecessary hurdles to enable the safe testing and integration of this technology into our country's airspace.”

To say that the FAA is supportive of further development and use of drones is an understatement: It costs just $5 to register a drone with the FAA and the registration is valid for three years. In this environment, the size/weight of drones continues to increase, with Griff Aviation, a Norwegian maker of drones, recently announcing the arrival of a new eight-propeller drone that can lift up to 660 pounds. These developments need to be put in context. The U.S. has used drones in military operations very effectively in its efforts to target terrorists. Are we naïve enough to think that others don't see those possibilities?

For the past several years, the number of drones that have been sighted in the take off and landing patterns of major U.S. airports has continued to increase. In the first three months of 2019 alone, airports in Newark, London, Dublin and Dubai have suspended flights due to drone activity in their vicinity. Are these hobbyists?

In May 2019, a drone operated by a teenager appeared above the bleachers at Fenway Park during a Red Sox game. What if he hadn't been a hobbyist? At least one person seemed to understand the potential threat in that situation. Red Sox pitcher David Price said it was frightening and questioned what might have happened if the drone had a grenade for a payload.

To date, the FAA's activities related to the development and use of drones has been supportive. But, as the U.S. federal agency responsible for aviation safety, it should be devoting similar attention to the potential risks of drones to public safety and countermeasures that might be taken to mitigate those risks. As more and more of these unmanned aviation vehicles take to the air, our ability to identify and act on those that pose a risk to the public continues to lessen.

E-Commerce delivery lockers
In the aftermath of 911, federal, state and local governments sought to reduce our exposure to terrorist threats. One of the actions was the elimination of storage lockers in public places such as transit and rail stations, and airports so that explosives couldn't be put in those lockers. We seem to have forgotten the risks that such storage lockers pose.

Amazon, DHL and others are rapidly expanding the number of storage lockers available to customers in supermarkets, convenience stores and on college campuses. One of Amazon's recent initiatives, Amazon HUB, involves putting thousands of delivery lockers in apartment buildings and housing developments. Given the current regulatory environment at the national level, the obvious disconnects between federal, state and local government units, and our apparent national lack of long-term memory, it would not be a reach to see e-commerce providers push to once again install storage lockers in public facilities. The results of such a movement could be catastrophic. Once again, intelligent public policy making is needed to assess the risk associated with this development and develop countermeasures.

Autonomous vehicles
For more than a decade the media has been filled with discussions of the potential applications of autonomous vehicle technology to automobiles and trucks. The major players in development of this technology are Waymo, a stand-alone subsidiary of Google, General Motors, Ford, BMW and an alliance involving Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi. To date we have had limited demonstrations of that technology with mixed results including several fatal crashes involving autonomous vehicles. The conventional wisdom, as it has been for years, is that autonomous vehicles are coming and will become major elements of our national automobile and trucking fleets in the years ahead. While that may be the case, what safeguards are we putting in place to protect the public from possible subversion of that technology to cause public harm. Within the past several years we have seen trucks used as terrorist weapons in such places as New York City, London, Berlin and Nice. Will autonomous vehicles make such attacks easier for terrorists? What systems are we incorporating into this technology to reduce that risk?

The Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Homeland Security
The two federal agencies primarily charged with transportation safety responsibilities in the U.S. are the FAA and the DHS that was established by consolidating multiple federal agencies after the 911 attacks. As shown by the FAA's recent reticence to ground the 737 MAX 8, the agency continues to have difficulty balancing public safety concerns with airline financial issues. That is once again apparent in handling of drones to date.

Under normal circumstances, DHS might be expected to take the lead in addressing transportation issues. However, these are not normal circumstances. With the Trump administration seemingly unconcerned about appointing individuals with limited background in issues addressed by such agencies, not filling important positions in those agencies and summarily firing some agency heads, we can't expect that leadership to materialize anytime soon. This constitutes a crisis in national transportation policy development with respect to the safety issues discussed in this paper.

Supply chain’s role
While the supply chain community aggressively pursues the expanded use of drones, delivery lockers and autonomous vehicles with the customer in mind, there has been limited discussion of the potential risks these developments pose to national security. Further, the federal agencies responsible for limiting such risks appear naïve or incompetent with respect to the development of policies to protect national security. This situation will only worsen as the scale of drone and autonomous vehicle network expands and it becomes more difficult to detect a threat. With the technology-hacking capabilities demonstrated in recent years we need to recognize how these systems might be subverted.

Why should these matters be important to the professional supply chain management community? As noted above, as supply chain professionals, we are primarily responsible for the current emphasis placed on those technologies and practices. Corporate social responsibility requires analysis of the consequences of those technologies and practices, intended or unintended. Historically, the supply chain community, including all of its component parts, has played an important role in public policy development affecting transportation and logistics activities in this country. At this point, that doesn’t appear to be happening. If anything, we’re cheering from the sidelines.

These matters need to become much more visible in our corporate discussions, academic and industry conferences, and the research conducted by university faculty members, government agencies and industry trade associations. We should also become more collectively involved in assuring that federal agencies such as the FAA and DHS are headed by individuals knowledgeable in the subjects those agencies administer. The potential risks associated with expanded use of drones, storage lockers and autonomous vehicles are too important for us to collectively ignore them and wait for the next catastrophic event.

Bob Lieb is a professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University, and a frequent contributor to Supply Chain Management Review. He spent more than a decade as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of the DOT on transportation policy issues. He can be reached at [email protected].


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