Five reasons delivery drones won't take off
2 December 2013 1:45pm
The news is buzzing with hopes for Amazon's drone-based delivery service - Prime Air. But skies in the UK will remain quieter for the time-being. Here's why.
John Moreland, a spokesperson for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Systems Association (UAVS) says that regulator fears over drone technology still hold back development.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) wants all deployment to occur in a safe and professional manner, while Moreland says that drones are seen "as the new kids on the block" as the technology remains in its infancy.
While drones are still being proven, the CAA will still be worried about their use near people or property.
They also need to be flown within line of sight of the pilot. What Amazon are asking of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US would be a huge departure from what's presently allowed.
Amazon's prototypes can't carry weighty packages (they have a limit of 5lbs/2.3kg). While they say that that capacity would still allow drone mailmen to ship 86 per cent of what they sell, it's still a big limit.
It's also not clear that they can fly that far, or in all conditions. So if you need a very small item very urgently, they you'll probably have to live pretty close to a depot and hope that it's a calm day.
The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) anticipates that high value packages, such as transplant organs, would be candidates for the service. But you probably wouldn't want to risk a strong gust of wind damaging a much needed organ while in transit.
Amazon's promotional video shows a vehicle landing in a customer's garden. It's not clear where you'd drop off a package to someone in a block of flats, or with no garden.
On the other hand, those denser populations mean that the above concern about maximum flight distances is less pressing. That is, if Amazon can find a way around it. They've already considered click and collect points at tube stations.
Any innovator is going to suffer from a bit of public technophobia. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has complained about the phenomenon - where the media gives disproportionate coverage to accidents involving new technology.
Why does a Tesla fire w no injury get more media headlines than 100,000 gas car fires that kill 100s of people per year?— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 19, 2013
Drones are likely to suffer from the same fate in their early stages. Until people become familiar with the craft, there may be some hesistancy to adopt flying posties.
5. It might just be a publicity stunt
Many cynics have already pointed out that Amazon made this announcement on Cyber Monday - the heaviest day of online shopping each year.
Amazon have dominated the news cycle, and at exactly the right moment. They couldn't get better publicity during the pre-Christmas online rush. That's clearly what they wanted to achieve - maybe they care less about the drones.
There are still reasons to be hopeful
Despite all of those things, we're still optimistic that we'll one day see a sky filled with drones, or at least that deliveries will become automated (perhaps driverless cars will turn out to be superior in competition between the two).
There are clearly advantages to getting your takeaway delivered by a rapid unmanned vehicle - and that's likely to drive research and development in the area.
Technology will improve, regulators will wise up to it, and eventually the benefits they provide will overcome the fear that consumers have of new technology.