Having drones autonomously deliver your Amazon products within thirty minutes of you ordering them might seem a bit too sci-fi to be true, but Amazon is taking their Amazon Prime Air drone delivery plans very seriously and it could be that drone technology could really be the future of delivery.
While the massive “beehive” dispatch centers that Amazon has filed a patent for might be a few years off, the technology for drone deliveries already exists. In fact, Amazon has already completed test autonomous drone deliveries in Cambridgeshire England.
It was back in December 2013 that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos first talked about Amazon Prime Air in an interview that he did for 60 Minutes. He outlined Amazon’s plans to use drones to fly packages directly to the doorsteps of customers. To be able to take advantage of the 30 minute drone delivery service, customers will need to live within 10 miles of anAmazon order fulfillment center and their package must weigh less than 5 lbs and be small enough to fit in the cargo space of the drone, which is not as restrictive as it might sound, given that 86% of Amazon orders would qualify under the weight restriction.
In December 2016, Amazon successfully completed their first test drone delivery to a customer who lived near Cambridge in England. The company has now built its first Prime Air fulfillment center in Cambridgeshire and has plans to extend the drone delivery service to hundreds more customers in the area.
While the test in Cambridgeshire was impressive, it does have to be noted that the man who received his Amazon order by drone does appear to live in a house in the middle of an open field. It should also be noted that the rural parts of Cambridgeshire are amongst some of the flattest and least densely populated areas of England.
Navigating densely populated areas is only one of the hurdles facing Amazon Prime Air. Another problem the project faces in the US is federal regulations. Currently, the flying of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for most commercial purposes is prohibited in the US, although the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 paved the way for the integration of drone technology into the airspace system.
In March 2015 the FAA did grant Amazon permissions to start testing a prototype in the US, but Amazon did not start testing, stating that the drone that had been cleared for testing was now out of date and obsolete. Amazon has since carried out drone delivery tests at an undisclosed site in Canada.
The FAA has also imposed restrictions on Amazon’s flying of drones, including an altitude limit of 400 feet, a speed limit of 100mph, and the rule that the drones must stay within the pilot’s line of sight. Eventually, Amazon hopes to operate the drones between 200 and 500 feet at speeds of up to 50mph.
Setting its sights on drone deliveries to customers that live within a 10 mile radius of a fulfillment center creates another problem for Amazon and that is building the hi-tech buildings that will accommodate the drones. This is probably the biggest hurdle that Amazon Prime Air will have to overcome.
One of the biggest public concerns about the future of Amazon Prime Air is safety. Amazon has said that safety is their top priority and their delivery drones will have built in, commercial aviation standard, safety protocols. However, having hundreds of drones buzzing overhead is still a cause for concern for many people.
Another public concern is that of privacy. Amazon Prime Air drones will be connected to the internet and they will have on-board cameras. The internet connection is for GPS guidance, flight control and communication between drones. The camera is for collision avoidance and for piloting. The concern is that, with thousands of drones in the sky, Amazon will be able to collect data and images during the delivery process and so, either intentionally or unintentionally, invade people’s privacy.
The future of delivery
Amazon’s plans for a drone delivery system are coming closer to becoming a reality, but there are still some big obstacles in the way. As mentioned before, one of the biggest obstacles is the need to have order fulfillment centers close to centers of population.
Amazon’s answer this issue, which they recently patented, are “multi-level fulfillment centers for unmanned aerial vehicles”, which would see Amazon replacing their large warehouses that are currently located on the outskirts of big cities, with multi-storey drone centers, which resemble large beehives, located in city centers. The idea being that small footprint, tall buildings could be built cost effectively in urban centers and tall buildings would also be more suitable for operating drones from.
The flying of larger numbers of drones in built up areas still presents some issues though, not least of which is the noise that so many drones flying in out of the building would make. There is also, of course, the safety issue of the possibility of drones dropping out of the sky onto the crowded streets below.
In terms of the noise, Amazon has been investigating the use of innovative rotor designs that would reduce noise, which have centered on design features such as trailing edge fringes and leading edge serrations, which would break up the airflow and reduce the sound of the rotor blades.
On the safety side, Amazon has also filed patents for drones that have multiple motors and rotor sets, so that if one fails, another simply kicks in. This would seem a very simple idea, but a step that would be essential if Amazon is to fly delivery drones over densely populated areas.
The filing of patents by Amazon does not mean that this is what they intend to do. It may not even mean that drone deliveries are about to become widespread. What it does tell us, though, is that Amazon is taking the future of drone delivery very seriously and they are putting a lot of thought, and money, into the project.
Amazon won’t be the only company thinking about the future of deliveries, and there will be many other companies keeping a watchful eye on Amazon’s progress. It could well be that automated delivery of everything from your pizza to your latest Amazon purchase is a lot closer than you think.