Despite the green light for small businesses to begin experimenting with their own drone delivery programs, corporate behemoths such as Google, Walmart, and Amazon are still heavily restricted from blotting out American skies with swarms of robots. With most of the others’ details left in the dark, Amazon has been more vocal about its own drone delivery program as it begins testing in the United Kingdom where regulations aren’t nearly as stringent.
Though we can’t say for certain, the unveiling of Amazon’s drone delivery program might have been due to Daniel Buchmueller, Amazon Prime Air’s co-founder, mentioning the company moved their testing to the U.K. earlier this summer. Sure enough, several tips from local observers helped pinpoint Amazon’s R&D lab on a farm outside of Cambridge which has now been walled off hay bales to keep nosy people from looking in. But why would an American company be testing drones in British airspace aside from privacy from prying eyes?
While FAA regulations have become more relaxed for smaller scale commercial drone applications, they still haven’t cleared larger distributors such as Amazon for take-off. Obviously, this hasn’t stopped the online retailer who’s found the British government more accommodating for the fledgling drone delivery program. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told Geek Wire, the company has been “getting really good cooperation from the British equivalent of the FAA, the CAA.” Meanwhile back at home, Amazon’s successfully installed an executive from their Prime Air service to sit on the FAA’s advisory committee, giving the company a say on future policy and regulatory decisions.
Amazon’s drone delivery program and others like it have been a hot topic in the past few years. As logistics companies seek to minimize the gap between a package’s origin and the dreaded last mile, innovations such as drones are quickly becoming front-runner solutions. While still in testing, Amazon’s primary delivery drones will use GPS to find their destination and zoom to it at up to 50 miles per hour. With maximum altitude of about 400 feet, these drones can also operate in dense urban and suburban environments, something Bezos considers to be some of the “hardest neighborhoods.”
Though the drones are automated and have sensor technology to avoid collision with objects on the ground (when landing) and in the air (while flying), human safety operators can intercept and manually control drones that need flight correction in case they need an extra hand. The drones can also recharge themselves on special docks that have been patented by the company but — again — this all remains in testing at the present time.
The following video from last year is a good overview of how the service and the drones are meant to work:
So far, the current operating procedure seems mostly unchanged from the year-old video. When addressing the crowd at the 2016 Pathfinder Awards held earlier in October, Bezos explained the delivery method more in depth: “If you have a landing field, you can mark it with a symbol that you can print out with your printer, and put it where you want the vehicle land. It will come over, see it, and land and if it sees anything that makes it nervous, it can divert or phone home for help.” That’s where a human safety operator might come into play.
Much like how we have mailboxes to receive letters and small packages, homes might soon have small clearings as landing zones for delivery drones to make their rounds.
Amazon’s airborne drones have about a 20 mile range round trip and can carry packages weighing up to five pounds. While this might seem like a small weight threshold (especially compared to land-based drones that can carry more than four times that weight), Amazon reports that five-pound-or-less packages account for about 86 percent of their deliveries. When cutting costs and maximizing efficiency, that other 14 percent can easily be solved by conventional means — though that isn’t to say they company won’t just develop a larger, heavy duty drone once they perfect the current models.
Bezos was recognized at this year’s Pathfinder Awards for both his achievements with Amazon and his rocket company, Blue Origin. As the Museum of Flight, one of the managers for the awards, explained that Bezos is a “perfect manifestation of a Pathfinder, implementing technology for the present, and future benefit of mankind.” Held in Seattle, the Pathfinder Awards began in 1982 to honor “individuals with ties to the Pacific Northwest, who have made significant contributions to the development of the aerospace industry.”
Amazon’s competitors such as Google and Walmart are still playing their drone cards close to their chests. As Geek Wire observed, “Google has applied for a patent for an aerial delivery device that ‘locates the machine-readable code on a display at the delivery address and verifies that the information from the machine-readable code is associated with the package. The delivery device deposits the package on the display.'”
Such a code display would not be unlike Amazon’s own scheme, but it does leave one lingering question: how will the drones be able to differentiate between codes if multiple houses in the same vicinity rely on the same symbol for that service (such as in Amazon Prime Air’s video example above)?
These companies still have some time to work out the kinks as drone delivery at such a scale is still a ways off. The FAA still needs to work on better regulations for larger distributors and the drones still need some fine-tuning. As April Glaser, Recode’s drone reporter, estimates, we shouldn’t “expect door-to-door drone delivery until 2020 at the earliest.”
She goes on to say how current FAA regulations slightly discourage even consumer drone ownership as the regulations are difficult to universally understand.”[Drones] are an investment, and people want some clarity about what they can and can’t do with [them] because they’re [worth] so much money.”
Moreover, there’s a lot of gray surrounding whether or not property owners have air sovereignty over their homes as there’s no legal consistency for whether or not you can shoot trespassing drones down. While the cases we’ve explored have happened in the U.S., just recently a video has gone viral over a farmer in the U.K. who’s had enough of his neighbor’s aerial snooping, shooting the thing right out of the sky with a single shot.
It might be a few years before we can see our online orders fly right to our doorstep, but initiatives like Amazon’s drone delivery program are certainly interesting prospects for the near future. While the FAA starts clearing up some of the regulatory murkiness, it’s only a matter of time before we start clearing the way for our own personal drone landing zones.
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