A prime time for drones?

Amazon Prime Air delivery method
Attack of the drones

Prime Air, the latest creation to come out of Amazon’s R&D division, is a package delivery drone that could take to the skies in the next four to five years.

For many, the mention of drones sparks imagery of a military-style missile delivery system or a quadcopter, RC drone or multi-rotor drone intended and sold for private use.

Now, Amazon wants a section of airspace freed up for the deployment of delivery drones. At a recent NASA-hosted conference, Amazon voiced its opinion regarding the vertical sectioning of airspace for certain uses. It suggested a space between 200 and 400ft from the ground be reserved for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Safety is not the only word on everyone’s minds when discussing the use of drones as a delivery method into residential areas. Environmental, economic and privacy concerns are also being voiced.

Many are asking what the impact economically would be on jobs created or lost as well as the habitats of birds, insects and other wildlife that could be affected through the implementation of many more flight paths.

Privacy has also been a talking point in recent years as in order for the drones to operate they would have to gather and store information about the environment around it. The operating centre for Prime Air would collect countless amounts of information, creating fear for potential threats for privacy violations. Data management is sure to be at the forefront of Amazon’s priority list in order for Prime Air to proceed.

The miniature UAC technology intends to utilise GPS to autonomously fly individual packages to customers’ doorsteps within 30 minutes of confirmation of the order, as long as the package is under 5lbs and the delivery destination is within 10 miles of one of its fulfilment centres.

6 prime-air body

The US Federal Aviation Administration granted Amazon permission to begin US testing of a prototype earlier this year. The Prime Air drones are small, unmanned octocopters (eight-rotor helicopters) that are powered by electric motors.

In the UK, civilian use of UAVs has been increasing. They are used for a number of reasons such as agricultural surveillance and assisting in rescue operations to simply use as toys.

At present, anyone can purchase a drone that weighs less than 20kgs and is not intended for commercial use. It must not be flown within 150m of a congested area and 50m of a person, vehicle or structure not owned by the pilot.

However, the rules surrounding the use of UAVs may be changing. Earlier this year, the House of Lords EU Committee called for the compulsory registration of all commercial and civilian drones on the basis of concerns of use by civilians with little knowledge of aviation rules.

Commenting on a report, entitled Civilian Use of Drones in the EU, House of Lords EU Committee chairman Baroness O’Cathain said: “We have a huge opportunity to make Europe a world leader in drone technology. But there’s also a risk—public understanding of how to use drones safely may not keep pace with people’s appetite to fly them. It would just take one disastrous accident to destroy public confidence and set the whole industry back.

“So we need to find ways to manage and keep track of drone traffic. That is why a key recommendation is that drone flights must be traceable, effectively through an online database, which the general public could access via an app. We need to use technology creatively, not just to manage the skies, but to help police them as well.” 

For Amazon, the journey is still beginning towards FAA approval. Many questions are still unanswered. What amount of personal data can Amazon store through image capturing and GPS? Will the weather be a big problem? Or will someone attempt a theft by deciding to shoot one out of the sky? These are a few of many thoughts circulating the industry as we consider all the implications of deployment of drones for commercial purposes.

What are your thoughts on the use of drones for commercial package delivery purposes?