Going as far back as 2013, Amazon has had some big plans for the use of drones in their delivery services. As the largest ecommerce company in the world, and the largest retailer in the United States, Amazon is no stranger to the logistics of shipping consumer products. With recent advancements in drone technology, the company wants to be able to deliver some of their smaller packages to your door, using nothing but an unmanned aerial vehicle.
With a newly signed partnership with the UK government, Amazon has even start testing outside of their primary market.
Delivery by Drone – Is the Concept Ready for Deployment?
Four years ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos optimistically said that he wanted to be able to offer a new Amazon Prime Air delivery service within the next five years. Although not quite there yet, it’s not unfeasible to think that Amazon might be able to deploy their service within this decade.
Traditionally, retailers and distributors have relied on ground, sea, and air logistics. For local deliveries, third party courier companies are usually used, after products are passed through main centralised dispatch centres. Amazon wants to cut out the last leg of the distribution process, and have a drone deliver smaller packages of up to 5 lb., which would make the process faster and more efficient. Instead of packages being loaded into a truck or van that would have to make multiple stops throughout a long day of deliveries, a drone could simply leave the distribution centre and head straight to the customer’s address. Amazon aims to be able to make these deliveries in just 30 minutes for covered areas, which in reality, could mean cutting one or two days of waiting for a package to pass through a third party delivery company.
This all sounds like some kind of wish from science fiction, but it is well grounded in reality, and could be happening in the very near future. In fact, preliminary trials have already been carried out successfully, with a number of them occurring in the UK.
What is Amazon Testing in the United Kingdom?
In July of 2016, Amazon announced their partnership that was supported by members of the government and the Civil Aviation Authority. The company needed to get special permissions to start trialling their technology in the UK, with the aim of developing data sets in some key areas.
First of all, Amazon needed to be able to determine whether they would be able to operate drones autonomously in rural and suburban areas. If you’re a drone pilot, you would know that the Drone Code limits you to operating a drone within your line of sight. With an Amazon Prime Air drone, navigation would be based entirely on location data and the avionics of the drone.
Part of ensuring that a drone can autonomously navigate, is ensuring that sensors work and interact as intended. Amazon drones won’t just be able to detect things like speed, pitch, and altitude, but they’ll also be able to detect buildings and people, roads, and other key landmarks and obstacles. The aim is total safety with a high level of autonomy.
While the drones will fly mostly unassisted, there’s simply too much risk involved to let the aircraft fly without any kind of operator supervision. The third aspect of the Amazon testing in the UK has covered how an operator will interact with delivery drones. The company aims to be able to have a single person operate “multiple” drones, although they have not provided any solid information on just how many units would be assigned to an operator. This information would likely become available as the Amazon Prime Air project moves closer to production.
Benefits for Amazon and UK Drone Operators
The benefits for Amazon as a company are quite obvious. By finalising and being able to deploy their new technology, the company will be able to position itself as the most innovative and technologically advanced retailer in the world. They’ll be able to reduce their distribution costs, and at the same time they will increase customer satisfaction by reducing delivery times. The fact that deployment of this system would garner significant press coverage will also mean raising the global mindshare of the Amazon brand. In short, Amazon needs to be able to be able to see this through, because it will allow them positioning in the market that simply doesn’t exist for any other company.
By working directly with the UK government, Amazon will be able to iron out any legal hurdles as they continue to develop their technology, and private drone pilots may also benefit. Data collected from Amazon’s study may help to develop a better understanding of the safety and limitations of small drones. This could lead to better legislation surrounding drone pilots and the devices that can be sold in the UK. The publicity of the project could also help to raise awareness of drones and potentially grow the drone enthusiast community.
This is all assuming that the project proceeds successfully, and Amazon has not yet provided any information regarding a new timeframe to finalise testing and roll-out a commercial service.
Exciting Times for Drone and Tech Enthusiasts
In the UK, Amazon is currently limited to testing conditions in clear weather during daylight hours, with only light winds. As they collect more data and are able to prove the stability of their drones, the testing parameters will be expanded to include other weather scenarios. The company also seeks to expand their testing to other countries, which will help to test in varying conditions, while generating larger data sets that can be used in development.
Whether you’re interested in drones or simply a fan of emerging technology, the Amazon Prime Air project should pique your interest, and it will be interesting to see how quickly the company can develop their technology in the near future.