Signed, Sealed, Delivered By Drone

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are renowned for being efficient though controversial killers in warzones, where they have been employed to great effect.

But is there another use for them? Another task? A peaceful reason for their existence? Internet retail giants Amazon certainly seem to think so. Chief executive Jeff Bezos recently announced that the company is currently testing the effectiveness of drones in delivering parcels.

These drones would be capable of carrying just over 2kg, and could deliver an order to a customer in just 30 minutes. Bezos announced that the service, dubbed ‘Prime Air’ after Amazon’s one day delivery facility, could be up and running sometime in the next 5 years. But what could that mean?

For a start, shorter delivery times. From warehouse to your house in 30 minutes would, I’m sure, be difficult to beat

Flying drones
Amazon’s skies of the future (Credit: Gregor Hartl)

for any of its rivals. It could mean less traffic on the road, and a more personal touch than the parcel being delivered by land. It would also give Amazon a unique selling point; something that would make people think: ‘That’s Amazon’.

The technology behind it is already developed. The drone simply waits at the end of the conveyor belt, takes off, and delivers the package (hopefully) safely and securely to the home of whoever ordered it. Something akin to a military standard navigation system may be required, to make sure that the drone doesn’t land on the roof – or even worse, the road. But the vital elements, tech-wise, are all there.

However, there are issues with the idea. UCLan’s very own Dr Darren Ansell, something of an expert on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), has pointed out that “The UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people. To deliver goods to people’s homes for example in residential areas, the UAVs must fly over densely populated towns and cities, something that today’s regulations prevent.”

He also stated that “Other things to consider are security of the goods during the transit. With no one to guard them the aircraft and package could be captured and stolen.”

Obviously, the drones flying into random members of the public would be a massive PR disaster for Amazon, not to mention the cost of the court cases that would almost certainly be brought as a result. Therefore, this is something that they’ll wish to avoid – perhaps with the high-level navigation system I mentioned earlier.

The security may, surprisingly, be an even bigger issue. One drone, on its own, is not a secure means of delivering a parcel. It’s not as if Amazon can start sending ‘guard drones’ either – they surely can’t just start to attack anyone or anything trying to steal a drone, even if it might discourage the would-be robbers!

They could send a van to track the drone from the ground, but then this would render the whole exercise pointless, because they could just deliver the parcel with the van and do away with the drone. It might make deliveries a little longer, but it would be a lot cheaper, and more secure as well.

Drones personally distributing just one parcel at a time, on the same day as the order, would, I’d assume, make the delivery a little more expensive – but then there probably are people willing to pay that little bit extra, at least once, for the novelty.

And what of the noise? This would surely cause disruption, wouldn’t it? Well, the drones are fairly noisy, but no noisier than, say, a fast-moving car. It is more the type of noise that I think would be the issue – a low, constant, buzzing sound. If anybody hated the vuvuzelas at the last World Cup, then they probably won’t like these.

They also still need clearance to fly. Somewhat understandably, there are restrictions on the use of drones by the public (though commercial drone operations are legal in Australia), so these would need to be looked at; something that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently doing.

As it turns out then, it is not so much the technology that is stopping Amazon launching Prime Air – it is everything else. These are problems that will need to be overcome if Bezos’ dream is to be realised. For now, we must all be content to open the door, attempt to sign our names using a touchpad, and have our goods delivered the normal way.

But 5 years isn’t too long to wait, is it?

All pictures from Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

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