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?

  • Drones delivering my orders? Cloud cuckoo land!

    The human beings, with natural intelligence, who currently deliver goods to my address, have enough trouble getting the rights goods to the right person at the right address at the right time.

    Any drone would have to learn to choose the correct door for my address, fly into my porch, ring the doorbell, wait for me to get down several flights of steps, pass over the goods, request and take my signature, and fly off again. All without damaging anybody walking past at the time on the pavement.

    No, I haven’t got a garden, and even if I had, I would want to use it without the risk of being crushed by falling parcels. I note, for example, that today’s Deutsche Post drone experiment was from one side of a river to the other. Would it ever be safe to do this with people beneath?

    OK, so some companies who receive a lot of goods could build the drone equivalent of a heliport to get their stuff, but for us mere mortals? I’m not holding my breath. And if it were to happen, the first time that there was an accident or something dropped on some poor person’s head would put the kibosh on it!

    Mark me down as a “no”. 🙂

  • David Gravelle

    A brilliantly designed PR stunt.

  • I think it’s a really interesting idea, but ultimately, can you really see ten thousand delivery drones rocketing around the sky above new York/London/Shanghai?

    I don’t think the logistics are entirely viable, but I’d be tempted to say that with the increasing popularity of 3D printing, we might be looking at a model where consumers order patterns and components (occasionally known as ‘physibles’) and print out a lot of their orders at home.

    Electronics would be snap-together, and even clothing would be viable given a suitable block of ‘matter’ (a cotton and dye bail for example) to work from.

    That said it might work well in local co-op situations. I was reading an interesting piece a while ago about the growth of local cooperative groups in the US. It would be fairly easy to map Amazon orders to local demand, so if for example I ordered a new power drill, people on my street who needed to borrow it could make an offer (lets say £1 to keep it simple) and I simply stick it in the basket of a local drone. It’s delivered and returned to me when the neighbour is done. Easy!

  • Why not? If we can build little flying objects that use a few bits of plastic and some maths to fly Kgs of cargo about almost completely autonomously, then do we not have the capabilities to organise ‘safe-fly-zones’ or ‘micro-transport-conduits’ across cities? I think there are probably people working on this already .. most likely not the government-funded FAA and CAA but probably environmental/venture capital think-tanks (and the army of ‘amateur’ (lol) enthusiasts).

    Also, why is everyone thinking about cities the whole time? Drones could have a massive effect on deliveries to more rural areas where the risk of them crashing/exploding/etc is minimal. Think how much resource is used to deliver letters to Mrs Jones, 1 Upton Hill .. 0.45 mile driveway .. and to 50 of her neighbours. That diesel burned and the costs saved would roll out to all of us eventually.

    I personally think that drones are going to be a massive part of life for us humans. Adding three dimensional movement to our 2D lives is just great – and a big security risk (see how close the flying drone dildo got to the VIP).

    Also, the use of them for delivering essentials, such as water/radios/maps/life jackets in serious events such as flooding could have a profound impact on saving lives.

    I currently see two realistic applications for small drones:

    1. Search (and rescue) – imagine the situation when someone is reported lost at sea. Currently we deploy a £5M helicopter that costs £000s an hour to run. Would it not be better to press a button and launch 15 fixed wing, ducted fan drones with IR cameras all travelling at 100km/h to cover a massive area? What about giving them the ability to drop 10 life jackets or other beckons?

    2. Personal safety. If you’re walking home on a dark night and something doesn’t feel right then you can reach into your bag, and grab your mobile-phone sized micro drone. Chuck it in the air and it’ll immediately start following you. Also, it’ll have a range of high powered LEDs to instantly light the surrounding area and a HD camera to stream your current situation (via your mobile) to the cloud – your boyfriend can watch you walk home if it makes you feel better – two ways comms through a speaker? I love this idea so called it ‘chaperdrone’.

    Anyway, these are just ideas that someone way more intelligent and visionary than me will fulfil in the near future.

    My main point, is that I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss what Amazon did, whether it was a PR stunt or not (it was, but…hey). The reality is that technology is exploding like never before – mainly driven by awesome battery tech, tiny high-powered processors, and amazing manufacturing processes (accessibility). Link this in with AI, big data, social networks, and big fat mobile internet connections then you have a great method of chucking data and physical stuff all over the place without too much human interaction.

    Love it!

  • PR stunt. All it will take to come crashing down (pun intended) is one drone to come crashing down on some kid, dog or somebody’s fancy car. Amazon had built up its business on being able to provide quick fulfillment from its regional warehouses. They were correct in thinking nobody would ever build a logistics infrastructure that could match theirs. However, now that web giants like Google have gotten in to the shopping game with the likes of Google Shopping Express by partnering with local big box stores (like Target), there’s just no way for Amazon to compete with that unless they partner with rival big box stores such as Wal-Mart. I’m both an Amazon Prime as well as Google Shopping Express customer and while the selection is infinitely bigger on Amazon, for basic needs like diapers (for my kids, not me) why should I have to wait a minimum of 2 business days with Amazon when I can get free guaranteed delivery within 4 hours as I can with Google? Amazon is trying this out with groceries in Seattle and Los Angeles with its AmazonFresh experiment, but online grocery delivery is nothing new and not really Amazon’s core competency. Hence the drone PR stunt.

  • @Matt, drones are very reliable and have lots of fail-safes. It’s rare they crash, and as long as they have safe paths (avoiding schools, major roads, etc) then it’ll be highly unlikely they will hit anyone. People probably said the same thing about planes when they started flying over cities. Or when someone first invented fire (ouch, it might burn me, put it out!)?

  • Hey Jonny,

    That’s a fair point, although I’d expect it to be a while before the civil aviation authorities give it the go-ahead, I’d be the last person to want red tape to put a hold on it. I agree that we need bold experiments like this – we’re living in a very exciting period of tech development and deployment.

    There’s a good piece on Search/Rescue drones on vimeo if you’re interested: http://vimeo.com/77476282

  • It’s another great use of PR to build awareness and get people talking about Amazon and Jeff Bezos’s brilliance. We’re several generations away from seeing this in our day to day lives if at all. It’s sad to think that this actually overcomes a challenge for Amazon to overcome…instant gratification.

  • Troy Wilson

    I think the added value for a company like Amazon is that they could expand their ability to provide fast deliveries to areas that are currently hard to deliver to. They could take a truck into a rural area that has several items to deliver and release multiple drones to complete the delivery. This saves them money and time.

    They do have to get past the FAA as well as many more logistics issues, but I agree with the media in that this is more of a “feeler”, to get the idea out there and plant the seed for people to think about and get used to.

  • @Troy Wilson, that is an interesting take on this with a vehicle going to a central location and setting the drones off from there. The things have a limited 10 mile range, 5 miles round trip, give or take.

    Not sure that Amazon itself would want to get into having their own fleet of trucks though.

    • Randy Foreback

      Time and time again the USPS employee proves to be a liar and a thief who can no longer be trusted to handle the mail. Never, ever trust a USPS employee. Now you know why.

  • Dennis Delehanty

    A company in China called SF Express is ahead of Amazon in drone deployment. Strangely, no one in the U.S. or Europe has noticed: Amazon has gotten all the attention.

  • Sander Hart de Ruyter

    Drones will definitely take off. It might take a couple of years before they are “every where”, but that is just a matter of time.
    Human resources become more and more scarce and expensive, while in the mean time technology becomes better and cheaper.

    @ Graham: delivery at the door when you are not there? how old fashioned! the drone’s arrival can be scheduled on the second, and might even use your mobile phone gps coordinates to determine the drop off place. Only condition is that you are outside.
    About theft: the drones can be provided with an electronic lock of which the code is sent to your phone one minute before arrival
    @ Matt: what about the other way round: getting delivery trucks off the road saves lives!
    You are probably more likely to be run over by an underpaid adolescent in an old delivery truck then being struck by a drone equiped with all possible safety features programmed not to hurt anyone.

    @ Jonny: I like the remark about fire! 15 years ago there was a majority claiming mobile phones were of no use, and they would never own one. I am pretty sure they do by now

  • Marc Zazeela

    It certainly has created a lot of buzz for Amazon, so regardless the intent the publicity is putting them in the public spotlight. It may just be a PR stunt as I can see so many legal and logistical issues to be worked out before they could make it work.


    It certainly raises some questions, yes if could work for the odd special delivery but initially can’t be that efficient running 1 delivery at a time, carriers work on drop density so will take a swarm of drones to replace fully.

  • Joe Roberts

    Absolutely no way – as Marc intimates, getting restrictions lifted on airspace usage would take a long time, if at all. What density of Amazon Distribution Centre would we need for the feasibility of a 10 mile radius from dispatch to actually cost in?
    Imagine the insurance needed and licence conditions that would have to be adhered to in order to negate the inevitable small drone tumbling from the sky into traffic/pylon/Timmy’s cat.
    Autonomous vehicles dropping into a centralised safe box depot for each post code area providing fully mechanised End to End service……..well. Now you’re talking.

  • Kola Aduloju

    It’s an innovation but with its cost.For the immediate and the future it will remain a PR stunt. It serves that purpose but not cost effective for delivery services. Perhaps it may be useful in disaster scenario when ‘reach’ become the ultimate. Too many issues to address on security, safety, legal and the environment.

  • Simon Walshe

    I think it is a case of Amazon getting a lot of free publicity from a novel but totally impractical concept. If and this is a big IF, it took off (no pun intended) the service would be very limited but maybe the real aim would be … more free publicity.