But amongst all this rumour, how do these drones actually work? What’s preventing them from becoming the latest delivery method? And most importantly, will they actually become reality?
What are delivery drones and how do they work?
A delivery drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can transport goods in the air. Though many models are being developed, there is one most common model that combines the elements of an aeroplane and a helicopter, using cameras and sensors to detect and avoid objects.
These can be controlled in two ways; either flown remotely by human or flown autonomously. They typically fly at around 350ft (100m) at a speed of 50mph, and can only fly around 10 miles from their base till they run out of power.
For the consumer, drone delivery will be relatively simple. If using Amazon’s Prime Air, for example, you would simply buy your product online as normal and select ‘Prime Air’. Your order will then be packaged in the factory, clipped onto the drone and delivered to your home within 30 minutes. Though without a garden, delivery drop-off may be challenging – one of the factors preventing the development of delivery drones…
So what’s holding them back?
The conversation surrounding delivery drones has existed for years and huge amounts of money has been spent on the technology – and yet still no company has rolled it out, with even the largest of companies still firmly in development stage. So what are the main factors that are preventing drones from becoming our latest delivery method?
1. Drones must be flown within line of sight
Much of the technology behind the drones has already been created, but the greatest barrier to drone delivery becoming reality lies in regulation issues. Of particular concern is the danger of drones flown out of sight from the operator - a fear that was undoubtedly driven by the collision over London between a British Airways passenger jet and a drone in April.
Earlier this year, America’s Federal Aviation Administration allowed Google to test their Project Wing drones in designated areas. Though a huge step in the right direction, these tests had to be run within line of sight – a law that Obama’s administration cemented in June 2016.
Similarly, in the UK delivery drones must remain in line of sight and within 500 metres of the pilot – unquestionably hampering the development and implementation of the technology.
2. A drone pilot can only fly one drone at a time
In both the UK and the US, current regulations state that a drone pilot can’t fly more than one drone at one time. This law hugely hinders the economic value of delivery drones, as the likes of Amazon and Google would have to employ an operator for every drone flown – greatly increasing the overhead costs that drones are designed to decrease.
3. Drones could fuel privacy concerns
Aside from the physical safety of delivery drones, many leaders in the industry have voiced their concerns over the privacy issues that the introduction of delivery drones could bring. If there are hundreds of drones flying overhead, how would we be able to identify a drone delivering a package from a drone filming us?
Delivery drones have obvious advantages over traditional delivery methods by road. They can deliver items faster, they are not affected by varying traffic and the weight carrying restrictions of 2.2kg (5lbs) will have little effect - around 80-90% of products that Amazon sell weigh less. Perhaps most importantly however, they could hugely decrease the delivery costs that cut into eCommerce profits.
In fact, a report by ARK Invest showed that Prime Air could cost Amazon only 88 cents per delivery. Therefore, if Amazon charged their customers only $1 for delivery, they could offer significantly cheaper same-day delivery whilst still earning a 50% ROI in drone infrastructure. Its potential is huge - according to a new study by PwC, the emerging global commercial drone industry is valued at over £970 million ($127bn).
Dave Vos, the Head of Google’s Project Wing program, has claimed that their delivery drones will be ready to launch by 2017. This may seem far too optimistic, but signs are beginning to support this prediction. In July, for example, Amazon made a huge breakthrough by being granted permission by the British government to test the drones when they are out of sight from operators – the first time in history. The FAA has also chosen six test sites in America to allow the studying of drones.
There are still a huge number of barriers in the way of drone delivery becoming reality, not least regulatory issues, making it difficult to predict how it will progress. Having said this however, there has been great development in the past 6 months as we see companies coming together with regulatory bodies to develop the technology. If this continues in the same vein, it may only be a matter of time till our online purchases fill the skies…