It’s been on the cards for six years, but Amazon Prime Air could soon become a reality. In 2013, the e-commerce giant announced plans to launch a delivery service that uses drones by 2018. While it has missed the initial deadline, Amazon has spent the past few years successfully trialing and testing the drones at its development centre in Cambridge. It’s an exciting time as Amazon gives a glimpse into the future of supply chains and online commerce, but what is the reality when it comes to drones’ potential for logistics?
What’s the need for drone deliveries?
Speedy deliveries that arrive within minutes of placing an order is the key benefit of Amazon Prime Air. One trial drone delivery has seen Amazon drop off a TV streaming stick and a bag of popcorn in someone’s garden to help them have the ideal movie night. But that’s not all. For many businesses and consumers based in rural areas, quickly receiving orders via conventional transport options simply isn’t possible due to being cut-off from main roads. Drone delivery resolves this problem. They can deliver emergency supplies for people in need of immediate medical care, which is particularly useful for those in rural areas.
How do Amazon’s delivery drones work?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) controls Amazon’s delivery drones, enabling them to autonomously make deliveries in any environment and weather conditions. When faced with an obstacle, AI can determine whether the drone should delay a delivery, abort it or to use evasive manoeuvres. For existing unmanned drones, decisions about movements in the event of an obstruction must be made by a remote pilot.
Amazon has even talked about designing floating blimp docking stations to enable even quicker deliveries. This would involve loading an airship with drones and parcels and positioning it above an area likely to receive a large number of orders, allowing the drones to descend to deliver customer orders moments after they have been placed. Big events, like sports games would particularly benefit from this, as the blimps can be loaded with food and fan merchandise, and float near to the stadium ready to deliver orders.
What’s in the way of drone deliveries?
Receiving a delivery in a matter of minutes is advantageous but when it comes down to drones being used on a wider scale, there are some obstacles to overcome before fully rolling it out.
A study by NASA reveals that people tend to find the noise made by drones more annoying than road vehicles. If drone delivery takes off as a delivery method, noise pollution from the sky will increase significantly. People in rural areas could be worst affected as noisy drones disturb the peaceful surroundings. Amazon will seek to create drones that create little noise so that the movement doesn’t result in resistance amongst the general public.
When it comes to regulation, Amazon has a few hoops to jump through before it can legally launch delivery drones. It has struck a deal with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates aviation in the UK, to use airspace for drone testing. But the authority has said that Amazon does not have ‘blanket permission’ for flights beyond where it tests them. It’s a similar story on the other side of the Atlantic, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has permitted Amazon to use drones in the US for research and development only. Amazon hasn’t yet announced that it has secured a licence that will enable its drones to be used more widely.
The future of delivery drones
In June, Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer, claimed that Amazon Prime Air will deliver packages ‘within months.’ That doesn’t give Amazon long to overcome the legal and social challenges that come with delivery drones, so businesses shouldn’t expect a transformed supply chain or packages to be delivered within minutes any time soon. But as we’ve seen with the Amazon Alexa, the e-commerce giant is often a front-runner of cutting-edge technology that truly does take off. Amazon could be leading a revolution when it comes to online retailers.