Amazon’s plans to augment its package delivery service using drone technology are becoming clearer. This service, to be known as Amazon Prime Air, will see several drone designs flying over our skies, each designed for the environment it is flying in.
These will incorporate ‘sense-and-avoid’ technology to spot and evade obstructions and, presumably, other drones. To accommodate these machines, the world’s largest online retailer has proposed a drone-specific working airspace of between 4-500 feet (120-150m), which would separate them from aircraft. The really neat aspect of the drone delivery system is the timescale – drones will be used exclusively for quick delivery within thirty minutes of an order being placed. As these devices will be able to deliver packages of up to 2.25kg, this means that ‘the majority’ of Amazon’s catalogue will be available for delivery in this manner.
How secure will it be?
One genuine concern with drone delivery is the lack of security compared to other distribution methods. With a growing number of anti-drone devices on the market – including a bazooka which can trap drones in a net and capture it (see below) – there is a risk that individuals may target Amazon’s flying delivery vehicles, either to protect their own privacy or to seize the goods that are being transported.
While aware that such interception is a distinct possibility, Amazon’s vice-president for global public policy Paul Misener suggests that, once drone delivery becomes widespread its ubiquity will make this less of a threat:
“I suppose they could shoot at trucks, too. We want to make the deliveries. And we believe that these Prime Air drones will be as normal as seeing a delivery truck driving down the street someday, so the novelty will wear off.”
How far away is this?
Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to be able to order your thirty-minute drone delivery from Amazon for a while. There are still issues to resolve, including reducing operating noise, but the biggest challenge the tech giant foresees is government regulation. Misener has admitted that US regulations may mean that its new service will appear in other countries first, which would buck recent market trends. With development centres also in the UK and Israel, these would seem the most likely candidates for an initial roll-out of services.
Amazon is not alone in entering this game; several alternative delivery prototypes are also being tested. The first successful drone delivery to a shipping vessel was successfully completed by Maersk Tankers this week, while the co-founders of Skype, which now run Starship Technologies, have been testing ground-based delivery robots in London, Germany and Estonia. These are designed to emit no CO2 and, like Amazon, would compete in the five- to thirty-minute delivery window.
“Our vision revolves around three zeroes – zero cost, zero waiting time and zero environmental impact. We want to do to local deliveries what Skype did to telecommunications.”
– Ahti Heinla, chief executive at Starship Technologies
The delivery revolution is not here yet by any means, although it is gaining traction by the week. If governments across the world can resolve the current regulatory mess that drone technology has created, then we could be seeing our skies filled with drones more quickly than you might think. There is certainly plenty of incentive for Amazon and its competitors to do so.