Can Amazon’s drones deliver the Back to the Future world?

When Marty McFly stepped out of his time-travelling DeLorean to the year 2015 in Back to the Future II, the sky was buzzing with drones. A year on from that date in the real world and the air over our heads doesn’t hum with the sound of small, pilotless aircraft – but it might do soon, if Amazon’s vision of the future comes true.

The internet retail giant has secured an agreement with UK authorities to develop the technology to deliver products by drone in 30 minutes from receiving an order via its Prime Air service, taking advantage of Britain’s willingness to embrace burgeoning interest in the unmanned aerial vehicle sector.

Last year the government let slip the company had approached it about experimenting with the technology here, having found America’s regulatory regime around flying drones too restrictive, with then transport minister Robert Goodwill joking “so much for the land of the free”.

Amazon shows off new prototype delivery dronePlay!02:19

Britain, which wants to establish itself as a world leader in unmanned vehicles of all types, has extended that co-operation, with the Civil Aviation Authority relaxing normal rules requiring drones to stay within “line of sight” of their operators – taken to be about 1,500ft – and not to fly above 400ft to avoid other air traffic.

Now in special test area near Cambridge, Amazon is experimenting with drones using using special air corridors, with the small aircraft flying up to 10 miles from their operators, who each could theoretically be “piloting” fleets of the aircraft. Ultimately the aim is to make the drones completely autonomous, using “sense and avoid” systems that allow them to see objects in their path and divert around them, without any human interaction.

It all sounds very science fiction and when Amazon first announced Prime Air shortly before the Black Friday shopping extravaganza in 2013, many thought it was just a publicity stunt.

Jeff Bezos
Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is a fan of aerospace technology CREDIT: GETTY

However, Amazon is determined to make Prime Air a reality, with chief executive Jeff Bezos personally supporting the programme. Bezos – a fan of aerospace technology and who has set up private spaceflight company Blue Origin – has overseen investment understood to run in hundreds of millions of dollars, and Prime Air has attracted a heavyweight team of leading engineers and pilots – even a former NASA astronaut is on board.

But putting aside technological challenges, is there really a market for deliveries by drone?

Think about how we used to wait seven days for online orders to arrive – now that seems archaic

“Absolutely there is a market,” says Kim Paykel, programme director at EYX, a unit of consultancy EY which helps clients embrace new technology. “Speed of delivery is something all logistics companies chase. Think about how we used to wait seven days for online orders to arrive – now that seems archaic.”

Paykel adds she was surprised to learn that Amazon says almost 90pc of its current orders weight below 2.25kg, meaning they will be able to be delivered by drone.

“Amazon is a savvy organisation and sees an opportunity here – it’s a classic case of technical innovation, where the technology is ahead of the market,” she says, noting: “Amazon is not a company that would ever let a chance to make a bold statement pass it by.”

Human nature is also set to drive demand for drone delivery services, especially as Amazon does not see as a major extra cost once the technology is perfected and analysts think could add just $1 to an order.

“One should never underestimate the seductive power of instant gratification,” says Richard Hyman, an independent retail analyst. “When you go into a shop and buy something and walk away with it, that’s instant gratification. Early e-commerce struggled with that but people were willing to put up with it and wait for orders to arrive. That’s changing now with one-day delivery. Delivery by drone will allow Amazon to add value in the way that going into a shop and being helped by assistants adds value.

“It’s allowing Amazon to not just level the playing field, but create one of its own and disconnect itself from rivals who will be unable to keep up.”

Store assistants
Internet retailers have struggled to add value in the way that traditional stores can – speedy delivery could change that CREDIT: JULIAN SIMMONDS

Some critics argue that customers will never feel they so urgently need to have, say, a certain book, within 30 minutes to justify a drone service but Amazon sees airborne delivery as being economic enough that everyday sundries will be arriving by drone.

Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global innovation policy and communications, says: “If a customer runs out of coffee or toothpaste, two-day shipping may not be the right choice. We’re developing shipping options so they can choose what works best for them.”

The company imagines scenarios such as having forgotten to bring a corkscrew to a picnic and ordering one to be delivered by air, or running out of milk and deciding it is easier to use Prime Air than go to the supermarket.

Questions have also been asked about the security of drones packed with potentially high value goods, which could prove tempting targets for the criminally inclined. Amazon doesn’t believe this will be an issue, pointing out the delivery trucks – which carry far more products than a single drone can – are not routinely victims of crime.

Amazon delivery van
Theoretically delivery vans should be a bigger target than a single drone for thievesCREDIT: GETTY

Whether the economics stack up or not – and Amazon clearly believes they do – how drones will work in the existing aviation environment is the biggest challenge to their development.

“Integration is the number one, two and three biggest problem for drones,” says David Goldberg, a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s unmanned aerial vehicle group. “Think of them like bikes on the road. It would be lovely to have cycle lanes everywhere but it’s just not practical, they have to fit in with the cars and lorries.”

Amazon believes a system where drones work in segregated airspace is the future, but inevitably there is the potential for the manned and unmanned aircraft to meet – possibly with disastrous consequences. Although the technology required to allow drones to detect objects and avoid them exists in it principle, how this will work with current aircraft that follow long-established rules that keep them safely separated is an issue, and one the Cambridge research is set to explore.

Perhaps more difficult will be working out drones how will operate in a complex urban environment, where buildings can rise above the 400ft ceiling , and hard to detect obstacles such as telephone wires are common.

Craig Lippett, chairman of the association of remotely piloted aircraft systems (ARPAS), welcomes the Amazon’s move and says the drone industry is enjoying a “gold rush” period at the moment.  However, for all the excitement about parcels arriving from the sky, safety is the paramount issue, and drones, like all machines, break.

Amazon drone
One of Amazon’s early drones 

“Drones are not built like manned aircraft with incredibly high safety standards,” he says, adding unmanned aerial vehicles he has flown have suffered propeller failures which have seen them come down. “If you have a comprehensive failure then it’s inevitable a drone is going to come down – all aircraft have a loss rate, manned or unmanned.”

Amazon is currently looking at 25kg drones and Lippett adds: “If that comes down on someone it is going to hurt”.

Amazon insists it is building drones to the same standards as manned aircraft, preferring to talk not about “reliability” but “robustness”, implying they can withstand things going wrong. Having Prime Air staff on board from aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing should also help ease concerns.

However, Goldberg warns that Amazon “has everything to lose from the prospect of an accident – and any mechanical object can suddenly go ‘pffft’ and down it comes”.

The internet retailer is confident it can overcome such worries but there are host of other factors to consider. Weather is one, with Goldberg noting that wind and rain can have a huge impact on such small aircraft, making them hard to fly. Range is another: although the drones’ current range of 10 miles is expected to increase, Amazon would need to massively expand its distribution network to hit the target of deliveries within 30 minutes.

Cambridge
Cambridge will be the site of Amazon’s trials of Prime Air CREDIT: ALAMY

There’s also the issue of noise of drones buzzing overhead – “they sound like lawnmowers” says Goldberg – and if cameras are fitted so operators can see the environment around a drone if they have to take control, privacy could be another.

Actually getting the packages into customers’ hands also raises questions. The spinning propeller blades of a drone are a hazard, where would people living in city tower blocks have drones, how does Amazon ensure they correct person receives the delivery, how do unwanted items get sent back? These are all to be answered but with Amazon’s might behind the project, there’s a good chance solutions can be found.

Paykel is excited about the prospect and believes it has a solid future. “A lot will come down to social acceptance of drones,” she says. “But technology is always ahead and what people think will drive where it goes.”

A slightly more sceptical view comes from Lippett. “It may be a gimmick but when you’ve got as much money behind it as Amazon has, it may be achievable,” he says. “There’s no reason it isn’t achievable, but it’s very hard to put a timescale on it.”

We might not have the world Back to the Future depicted, but if Marty returned in his DeLorean a few years from now, things could very well be different.

From: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/07/31/can-amazons-drones-deliver-the-back-to-the-future-world/