Amazon Prime Air: Plan for drones to make home deliveries takes heavy flak

The online retailer's announcement that it will introduce home deliveries by drone aircraft is being dimissed as science fiction
  • @Jamie_Merrill

Forget waiting in for the postman or trudging to the parcel office. If retail giant Amazon is to be believed, your purchases could soon be dropped off by a fleet of unmanned drones, revolutionising the way all sorts of packages are delivered to our homes.

Jeff Bezos, the firm’s chief executive, announced on Sunday that the firm hoped to be able to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to deliver packages to its customers within 30 minutes. The announcement was dismissed as publicity stunt by aviation experts and rival retailers, but has thrown attention on the increasingly diverse range of civilian uses for drone technology.

“I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not,” Mr Bezos told CBS television’s 60 Minutes programme. “We can do half-hour delivery… and we can carry objects, we think, up to 5lbs, which covers 86 per cent of the items we deliver.”

According to Amazon, the UAVs, called Octocopters, are currently being trialed and will be able to cover an area within 10 miles of its distribution centres once the Amazon Prime Air service is up and running in four or five years.

However the plan – along with most large-scale and cargo drone use – faces huge legal and technical challenges according to John Morelan, the general secretary of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association.

“This really is science fiction,” he told The Independent. “The current technology simply isn’t good enough and it seems impossible to fit in all the safety systems required unless you’re talking about something the same size as a manned helicopter, which is clearly totally impractical and uneconomical.”

Mr Morelan also pointed out that fast food restaurants Domino’s and Yo Sushi have recently garnered headlines with claims to be experimenting with “drone delivery”.

Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said: “There are many challenges to overcome. Top of the list is the need to mature the technologies and demonstrate to the regulators that unmanned aircraft can operate safely in our airspace.”

Amazon posted a video of a drone picking a package from a warehouse and delivering it to a customer’s doorstep; however unmanned civilian drones of this type are not currently permitted in the US, where Amazon announced the trial, and most likely won’t be permitted until 2015.

In the UK, strict air regulations mean small drones can currently only be operated by line-of-sight control and cannot drop parcels, far from ideal for a delivery system.

The system also has to overcome the difficulty of actually dropping the package in question into the hands of the correct recipient and working around the US military-operated GPS location system, which has built-in inaccuracies for civilian use.

Amazon said the Octocopters would be “ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place”, adding that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles.

In the UK a spokesman for the CAA, which regulates drone technology, told The Independent: “There are rules in place to make sure unmanned aircraft are operated safely and don’t pose any risk of harm to the public.

“A key element of this is the operator must have the aircraft within visual sight at all times during the flight.

“So there are a number of safety issues Amazon would need to address before this type of operation could go ahead.”

The spokesman added that the CAA was watching the technology closely and “new technical standards could emerge covering this type of operation in the future”.

According to the CAA’s latest figures there are already 191 operators licensed to use UAVs in the UK. However most of these are one-off or small-scale projects using drones fitted with cameras for filming, photography, mapping or observation.

The list of firms which have been granted licences is dominated by aerial photography companies, cartographers, production companies, digital terrain modelling firms, research bodies and firms which provide support services to power companies and off-shore oil rigs. Other operators include the Forestry Commission and the Scottish Environment Protection agency

While there are currently few large-scale civilian drone programmes, the Aerospace, Aviation & Defence Knowledge Transfer Network says there is a potential global  market worth £265bn on the horizon and the UK is “well-placed to take advantage”.

Dr Ruth Mallors-Ray, director of the body, said: “From farmers using unmanned aerial systems to check their pea crops to the Forestry Commission, there are countless examples of this technology being put to use in the UK already and we’re only going to see that increase.”

Anti-drone campaigner Chris Cole, who runs the website Drone Wars UK, said: “This is a PR stunt by Amazon designed to get them attention in the run-up to Christmas, but there are serious safety concerns about the use of civilian drones in the coming years.

“The real problem is the lack of what’s called sense and avoid technology which is the ability of the drone to sense when there is another aircraft in the area. It’s the magic key to allow drones to fly safely. Currently pilots, while they have radar and other sensors, still rely primarily on their eyesight to see danger close to them. Drones simply don’t have this capability.”

Rival Waterstones seemed amused rather than intimidated by Amazon’s announcement – claiming it was working on using  “specially trained owls” to deliver its books.