It has been over two years since Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, first suggested to Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” that Amazon would soon be delivering packages with drones. “I know this looks like science-fiction...it’s not,” said Bezos. “It’s early; this is still years away . . . we can do half-hour delivery, and we can carry objects (we think) up to five pounds, which covers 86 percent of the items that we deliver.”
Amazon Prime Air is the name of the future service Bezos alluded to back then that will supposedly deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones. As described on its website, “Flying under 400 feet and weighing less than 55 pounds, Prime Air vehicles will take advantage of sophisticated ‘sense and avoid’ technology, as well as a high degree of automation, to safely operate beyond the line of sight to distances of 10 miles or more.” The site also states that Prime Air has great potential to enhance the services Amazon already provides to millions of customers by offering rapid parcel delivery that will also increase the overall safety and efficiency of the transportation system.
According to Dan Wang in his article, “The Economics of Drone Delivery,” Bezos’s initial announcement sparked a lot of interest—and the media consensus was that it was a publicity stunt to get Christmas shoppers thinking about Amazon. “After all, federal law prohibited commercial drones from flying over populated areas, and airplanes were already experiencing close calls with hobbyists’ drones.” he noted.
Wang added that the drone community at large continues to accept that the prospect of delivering packages by drone is still a near future possibility. Seemingly in support of this contention, Amazon recently released a video update of its Prime Air program that addresses the company’s potential use of drones for merchandise delivery.
This video was put out by Amazon this last Cyber Monday and describes what type of drones the company hopes to utilize for its innovative delivery system—and how it will implement this initiative. Evan Ackerman nicely summarizes the Amazon video in “Amazon’s Latest Drone Delivery Promo Answers Zero Important Questions.”
The new video audibly explains Amazon has decided that the most efficient drone design for deliveries is a hybrid and it visually shows “Actual Flight Footage” of a prototype drone flying. The Prime Air website also describes the design strategy and plan for its drones. “We are testing many different vehicle designs and delivery mechanisms to discover how best to deliver packages in a variety of environments. We have more than a dozen prototypes that we’ve developed in our research and development labs—the look and characteristics of the vehicles will evolve over time.”
A quote in the video suggests that this drone is autonomous and capable of independent flight. “It knows what’s happening around it—it uses sense and avoid technology to sense, and then avoid, obstacles on the ground and in the air,” explained Ackerman. (Note that sensors are not visually visible on the drone example represented in the video).
The drone delivery zone is based around a large fiducial marker—which would be one partial solution to the landing problem. But this only informs the drone where it should try to land and not whether it is safe to land there. The video also states that the drone “scans the landing area for potential hazards.”
Ackerman questions the efficacy of this last description because it does not go into any real detail. “Personally, I’m more concerned about the dog running over to attack the drone once it’s close to the ground. Also, note the amount of space that the drone requires: probably okay for suburbia; maybe not as practical for urban areas—which is where drone delivery would make the most sense from a commercial perspective (and where Amazon clearly wants to fly).”
There are other serious issues that still must be addressed and resolved before drone deliveries can become a safe and economically viable option. Ackerman also discusses the following important considerations in his writing, “Amazon Promises Package Delivery By Drone: Is It for Real?”
The first crucial consideration is navigation. According to Ackerman, drones using GPS (differential or otherwise) generally have no trouble navigating around open areas or landing in fields because they are usually dealing with an accuracy of somewhere between three and 10 meters—which is fine for most applications. “But it’s not fine for landing on the front steps of a house as shown in the [most recent Amazon] video, especially when there are obstacles (like trees) all over the place.” He also explained the difficulty associated with directing drones where to go. “You can’t just give it an address; it needs precise GPS coordinates.” He added that aerial maps usually are not updated frequently enough to show flight and landing obstacles. “If you leave it in the hands of the consumer (through a GPS-enabled app), you’re going to get a bunch of people giving your drone the coordinates of their homes with 50 meters of error.”
Ackerman said that the second potential issue that can adversely affect a drone delivery program is obstacle avoidance. “Even if you get all of the navigation bugs worked out, the only way it’s going to make sense to make deliveries like this is if you’re in a high-density urban area.” He added that the implication here will be the presence of many buildings, power lines, telephone poles, trees, etc. “[With] stuff all over the place…your drone is going to have to safely avoid all of them by itself. This is certainly possible, but doing it dynamically (in real-time on board the drone) is going to require a lot of computing power and some relatively sophisticated sensors, like (at bare minimum) a camera that’s high-resolution enough to pick out black power lines against black pavement.” He noted that once the drone arrives at its destination, it is going to have to locate a safe place to land and drop off its box. This leads into the third logistical consideration—safety and liability.
The hybrid drones suggested by Amazon are not the average hobby-level flyers or mini-toys that were popular gifts this Christmas. “In order to lift a five-pound payload for 20 minutes with redundancy, you need big motors with big props,” explained Ackerman. He noted that even small motors with small props can hurt if one sticks one’s finger in a rotating propeller—so it is reasonable to assume that larger motors with larger props can likely cause significant injury. Ackerman admitted that the amount of interaction between the drones and humans is intended to be minimal, but he also noted that these machines are autonomously delivering packages to the ground level while fully powered. “Adult humans probably have the sense to stay away, but what about kids? What about pets? And this doesn’t even get into what happens if one of these things actually crashes for whatever reason, which they almost certainly will from time to time—if for no other reason than weather is unpredictable.”
The Amazon Prime Air site ensured its dedication to safety and states that “Safety is our top priority—our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies, as well as sophisticated ‘sense and avoid’ technology.” It also notes that Amazon will not launch Prime Air until the company is able to demonstrate safe operations.
But there are also still many legality issues that must be ironed out before drone delivery is common practice. “It’s not likely that the FAA is going to suddenly open up airspace into a wild, unmanned free-for-all…what’s more likely is that new rules will allow unmanned aircraft in public airspace, which is generally 500 or 1,000 feet away from all obstacles (including the ground),” explained Ackerman. In keeping with a 1946 Supreme Court Ruling, operating aircraft (or anything else) too low over private property constitutes a violation of the property owner’s rights. “What this means is that it’s probably not going to be legal to fly unmanned drones over private property below 500 feet, which makes it a lot more difficult to make deliveries,” he added.
Lastly, like with most everything else, cost is the final factor that must be considered. Amazon (and other companies like Wal-Mart and Google Wing also looking into using drones for delivery) must determine if implementing a system like this is financially worth the investment. This past December, Amazon announced the mobilization of its own truck fleet for merchandise delivery. Assuming this focused transportation initiative quickened its deliveries already, it raises the question as to whether this “novel” and “flashy” drone delivery system is even necessary.
It has been two years since Bezos publically and grandly announced the Amazon drone delivery system initiative—and his 2015 implementation projection has come and gone. With new requirements this year for drone registration by the Federal Aviation Administration, and that agency’s continual consideration of safety issues associated with drones (as well as the significant increase of drone “close calls” with airplanes), more and more questions may continue to arise and affect the eventual possibility of seeing an Amazon order delivered to your door via UAV. But none of this seems to detract Amazon from continuing its drone push and realizing its dream of filling our skies with smiley-faced boxes of flying stuff. Amazon claims to have Prime Air development centers in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel—and that it actively is testing its vehicles in multiple international locations. “Putting Prime Air into service will take some time, but we will deploy when we have the regulatory support needed to realize our vision,” the company concluded.
You can read more of Christopher’s work at www.cussat.com.