Will Amazon’s Drones take off?

The news has been inundated with the announcement that Amazon are proposing to use self-guided flying robots feasibly as autonomous delivery vehicles. No this isn’t something out of an Isaac Asimov book – this is actually going to happen! As a pilot, entrepreneur, self-confessed geek and owner of a drone (Parrot AR in case you’re wondering)  – it’s fair to say this announcement instantly got my attention!

The idea here is that orders less than five pounds weight will be delivered to your doorstep or your back garden in 30 minutes by one of these little drones from 2015.  In just a few years, we could see the skies clogged with tiny little flying machines buzzing around, dropping off parcels to people all over our cities, just like in the film Dumbo! In theory, this would completely eradicate the lack of instant gratification currently lacking from online shopping. For Amazon this means that nearly 85 per cent of their items can be transported by one of these sky-bound couriers. And if any company can pull this off, it’s got to be Amazon. They’ve proven to be ahead of the game time and time again.

Rogue robots

For home delivery to work safely and ubiquitously there are so many practical issues left unanswered: What stops someone else stealing the package along the way? What happens in poor weather conditions? And what’s to stop the drones hitting an errant bird? It’s all well and good for the unmanned vehicles to fly to a particular GPS site, but how does it then find the package’s intended recipient? I hope they’ve got a good data provider because they are sure going to need one!

On top of this there are then the legal issues to consider. Without special authorisation from the Federal Aviation Administration, drones can only be used for commercial purposes so long as the pilot keeps the drone within eyesight. The FAA has a plan to change all this, outlined in its recently published roadmap, but the agency is slow moving. Even if Amazon manages to get these off the ground, how much is it going to cost the customer? I would hazard a guess at an awful lot.

On the other hand, in some contexts, drone delivery has shown great potential. Last year, a startup called Matternet in California, tested drones as a way to deliver supplies to refugee camps in Haiti and found it cost only 20 to 70 cents to deliver a two-kilogram package 10 kilometers—at least a fivefold savings compared to standard truck delivery. And you might even recall Domino’s pizza “DomiCopter” concept mentioned earlier this year, which had pizza delivery men and women everywhere quaking in their boots. So these drones could actually be used for alleviate the distribution of humanitarian aid and deliver your takeaway on a Saturday night. But an expensive watch or phone? I’m still not convinced.

Opening up built up urban areas to large numbers of flying platforms is always going to be hit with drawbacks and concerns. But I’m interested to know what you think about it, will drones take off? (pun intended!) If you own an ecommerce store, would you consider using them?