The big tech news today is Amazon’s “announcement” of Amazon Prime Air – in which they claim to be planning a parcel delivery service that uses unmanned flying drones to get your purchases to you. Check the advert they’ve put together to see what I mean:
They claim this is not just a publicity stunt. Apparently the plans are to (I guess, literally) launch in 2015 – it’s just a nice bonus that they’ve announced this in the run-up to Christmas, and that everyone is talking about Amazon. Ahem.
But could drone delivery actually work? Amidst the internet fantasising about getting that thing they need brought straight to them by a robot in the sky, there are several questions that Amazon will need to answer. So let’s cast a sceptical eye over the plans…
How long will it take the humans in the Amazon warehouse?
In the video we see a man order something and have it delivered to his front lawn in superfast time. And assuming we accept the very notion of a drone delivery as plausible, there is still a problem: The human element. To package up the item it needs a human to find it on the shelves and to package it into one of those yellow boxes. According to a commentator on Reddit who works in an Amazon warehouse, it can take up to 2 hours between an order being placed and someone actually getting around to handling it.
So if someone is on their tea break, it might be tough luck.
Are drones safe?
Not if you’re the Taliban, that much is clear. What is much murkier is whether they’re safe enough to use en masse yet – simply because no one has thought to operate hundreds of drones simultaneously yet. Sure – a few drones might be good at dropping bombs and shooting missiles in the Swat Valley… but safety is going to be more important when they’re used in built-up areas. You can bet as soon as soon as the first little old lady is killed by a drone falling from the sky that the Daily Mail will be baying for blood – so before launching anything Amazon are going to have to be 100% certain drones aren’t going to start falling out of the skies.
What about the current laws around drone usage?
The technology is so new that laws are going to differ all around the world. Chances are that at least initially rules will vary from country to country on whether drones are either permitted or banned – think about how some countries let you use your phone on take-off and landing of a plane – and some insist that phones be switched off entirely for the duration.
In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority already has extensive rules on drone usage. The rules for hobbyist drone users appears to be “stay away from built up areas, and stay out of trouble” – which is why most drone videos are filmed in the countryside, and not flying over major cities. Unfortunately for Amazon – most people live in cities.
Is the law likely to change?
What we also don’t know is whether an increase in drone usage generally, as well as by Amazon will cause the government to step in and regulate them. Take a city like London – do we really want thousands of unmanned drones buzzing around above our heads with no one keeping check?
More pertinently to Amazon, perhaps is whether extra regulation could delay deliveries, and thus render drone delivery pointless. Think about when you go on an aeroplane and the number of safety checks both you and the plane have to go through. Nothing moves quickly. Before taking off planes are checked and tested all over to make sure that they are good to fly – it’s not inconceivable that Amazon will be required to do thorough checks over each drone before they can take flight. This makes sense to me – even as a technology evangelist and a utopian on matters of technology, I think I’d want to know that the drones in the sky have been checked!
Ultimately, drone use being regulated by the aviation authorities may turn out to be as weird as it is to remember that telephones used to be run by the post office – but in any case, it’s going to take a long time to get to a point where the laws around (mass) drone use are sorted out… which will no doubt cause nothing but headaches for Amazon’s lawyers in the meantime.
Are drones even reliable?
So let’s assume drones are safe, and all of the relevant authorities are okay with them flying over our heads… are they even going to be better than your regular postie?
In the video, we see the drone gracefully land on the family’s lawn and drop off the package, before flying away again… but what if you don’t have a garden, or live in a flat? Are drones going to fly up to the 10th floor and tap on the window?
And what if you’re not in to collect it – how can it arrange to leave it with your neighbours? (Imagine a flying robot asking you to sign for a parcel or risk extermination with lazers). Whilst digital mapping has come a very long way, it’s far from perfect: how many times have you followed Google Maps to a location, only to spend another ten minutes looking for the entrance? Whilst your postman may be able to intuitively figure out that he needs to go through the gate and ring the bell – whilst avoiding the dog… WALL-E might struggle with this.
How will it ring the doorbell?
And this is the million dollar question. It’s great that the drones will fly across the country, zooming over rooftops using a combination of GPS, on-board analytics and hundreds of years of technological progress. But once it arrives… how will you know?
Still – Amazon have done some impressive things before. They’ve turned E-Books from nothing into a huge industry that’s eclipsing even traditional publishing – they’ve come up with a tablet that lets you speak to a real person for tech support – and even let them take over the tablet. They’ve revolutionised the entire retail sector and destroyed half the highstreet… and have come up with clever innovations in “tax efficiency”. But drones? That’s dreaming big… but is it dreaming too big?
If anyone can make it work, I guess Amazon are best placed to.
By James O'Malley | December 2nd, 2013