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Amazon’s drone-delivery service is a pipe dream (for now)

Fri, 12/06/2013 - 2:54pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Forget same-day delivery. Amazon wants to make 30-minute deliveries a reality with a quasi-futuristic fleet of miniature drones. But for a service built on speed, “Amazon Prime Air” may have a long shelf life. Don’t hold your breath (or place your orders) anytime soon.

By now, you’ve heard the breathless reports touting Amazon’s 30-minute drone delivery service that could exist today were it not for a mountain of government agencies and regulatory hurdles. In the now-infamous 60-Minutes segment, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos envisions a future where cute little autonomous octocopters drop packages of 5 lbs or less — 86% of Amazon’s deliveries — on your doorstep.

Bezos’ dream (of the pipe variety) is probably inevitable — unmanned systems are the future — but his estimate of 4-5 years is ridiculously ambitious. Right now, we’re fighting a tooth-and-nail battle over law enforcement’s use of drones and the attendant privacy issues. Imagine an entire fleet of these suckers — flying just low enough to make a tempting target — buzzing around the neighborhood.

When PETA announced plans to spy on hunters with drones (“Air Angels”), the universal response was “Try it, and I’ll shoot them down.” I doubt that privacy advocates would appreciate these cold, mechanical UAVs deployed on a much larger scale. And that’s if — and it’s a big IF — Amazon Prime Air passes all the regulatory hurdles (or in some cases, creates the necessary legislation) — not to mention all the noise pollution.

According to Bezos, the 100-lb autonomous vehicles could deliver a 5 lb package within 10 miles of a fulfillment center (local warehouse). He freely admits that Amazon Prime Air can’t exist before 2015 (at the earliest) — when the FAA’s drone regulations go into effect. But a more realistic estimate, according to Bezos, is 4-5 years away. Even this timeline makes a ton of implicit assumptions — namely, that the lumbering beast of government regulation can work that quickly (hint: It usually doesn’t).

Let’s start with the legal framework — it doesn’t exist. The FAA’s "Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap" projects total integration occurring in three phases: Accommodation, Integration, and Evolution. The second phase — Integration — expressly forbids autonomous operations occurring in national airspace. So there’s that.

None of the FAA’s UAS regulations go into effect until 2015. And law enforcement probably has dibs. You’re far more likely to see domestic drones observing criminal activity (or spying on the citizenry) in the next 4-5 years than delivering packages.

And there’s also the minor issues of logistics and practicality. Right now, Amazon operates approximately 96 “fulfillment centers” worldwide. Each optocopter can only venture 10 miles from its home warehouse. That means a large portion of the country won’t be covered (yet). Here in New Jersey, Amazon plans to open a fulfillment center in 2014. Its location in Robbinsville places its prospective drones beyond the reach of some of the wealthiest towns and municipalities.

But let’s assume that Amazon purchases advanced drones with a range > 10 miles. And let’s assume that fulfillment centers spring up like weeds, putting the entire country (and world) in Amazon’s grasp. What happens after the first accident? Does the FAA ground the entire fleet, costing the nascent delivery service millions? Presumably, the optocopters would fly nowhere near commercial flights, but we also don’t want ground casualties. Indeed, Bezos noted that “This thing can't land on someone's head.”

All of these questions will need definitive answers — and the appropriate legislation — before Amazon can launch its first drone. It’s always a losing proposition to bet against technology, but the slowest horse in any race is the federal government. So don’t expect to see octocopters delivering the mail anytime soon.

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