Amazon Drones: Is This the Future of Logistics?

Imy Clarke - On behalf of Alchemy Recruitment, May 7, 2014

Drones, or more technically unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have for years been associated with nothing more than military exercises in observation and weaponry. Yet, could unmanned aerial delivery now be the future of logistics, or will it be nothing more than the hover board was to the 1980s – science fiction?

Since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced his idea for Prime Air, a drone delivery service for Amazon customers, the perceptions of UAVs are changing.

The primary idea of the Amazon drone is to offer “30-minute delivery” to its customers who live 10 miles from its US fulfillment centers. For customers within this range, they can have any product weighing less than 5lb (the majority of products available on Amazon) delivered to their doorstep via drone. Although the eighth-generation of Amazon’s Prime Air is currently in development, don’t expect to see them flying anytime soon.

The future of Prime Air is currently resting with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has prohibited the use of commercial drones until regulations are put in place to ensure the UAVs can safely operate in cities, near buildings and people and in the same space as other manned aircraft. It’s understandable; other companies could swiftly follow suit with similar technologies and very soon the sky could be swarming with an army of drones, particularly in cities that are already crowded. The FAA has selected six test sites across the US to conduct its own research on the feasibility of UAVs integrating into national airspace. Regulations for small drones, weighing less that 25kg, aren’t expected until 2015, and larger drones may have to weight many more years.

So what is it that needs to be solved? The main issue is the logistics itself. There needs to be route forecasting, real-time routing, a sophisticated mapping system for addresses and things such as weather and climate all need to be taken into consideration. There would need to be safety features – drones dropping from the sky due to power failures would be detrimental. Then of course there’s the question of how the drones know where to land? What’s to stop them landing on the roof, in a tree or even on a peacefully napping pet? The possibility of commercial drones has also sparked discussion about privacy rights due to a concern that control over the drones could be abused.

Yet, not every country is as stringent as the USA with regards to drones. In the UK, private UAVs below 20kg can be flown as long as they remain within line of sight (500m laterally and 122m vertically) and remain 150m from large groups of people and 50m from a single person or building. In London drones can be used commercially, as they are by the BBC and National Grid, with permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). However, companies must take out £5m public liability insurance before their commercial drones can take flight. In China, major delivery company SF Express is also testing drone delivery to remote areas. Its current drone can rise to a maximum height of 100m and deliver within 2m of the intended target. For a country with a fast growing economy and cities where traffic and pollution are large problems, drone based logistics systems are a big area of investment.

As a growing industry, worldwide spending on drones is expected to more than double within the next decade. Teal Group Corp estimate that this spending will reach $89 billion by 2023 and as many as 7,500 drones could be operational in the USA within five years. It’s not only Amazon who are interested in the industry either. Facebook purchased UK based Ascenta for $20 million and Google has recently acquired Titan Aerospace for an undisclosed amount. With the recent development and testing of Google’s driverless car, it looks like unmanned delivery could be a future for logistics.

Posted in categories: Domestic
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