Amazon’s First US Drone Delivery



Last week, another “last mile delivery” milestone took place when Amazon Prime Air made its first public U.S. drone delivery. A quadcopter drone delivered a package of sunscreen for the attendees at the Amazon invite-only Machine learning, Automation, Robotics and Space exploration, (MARS) conference in Palm Springs, California. It was completed fully autonomously with Amazon proprietary software, i.e. no operator was involved, in the controlled airspace of the Palm Springs international Airport. The FAA granted a special waiver for the flight.

The Regulatory Holdup

Note in my previous sentence I stated the FAA granted a special waiver for this first public Amazon drone delivery. In addition to Amazon a number of other companies including UPS and Google are developing autonomous drone delivery technology and have conducted many successful flights. However don’t hold your breath for the time you see the skies full of branded buzzing drones! The holdup is tight federal regulations which haven’t yet caught up with the pace of technology development.

A $127.3 Billion Market

It’s recognized that drones have tremendous commercial potential across a wide range of industry sectors. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in their “Clarity From Above” study state that the global market for drone powered business solutions is $127.3 billion. $13 billion of that is estimated for the transportation sector.

A Wide Range of Transportation Applications

Last mile delivery is where all the activity is currently taking place in the logistics sector. Amazon’s goal is to deliver a package within 30 minutes of an order being placed. Sending a 4lb package within a 6 mile radius in the US by ground transport costs Amazon $2 – $8 compared with just $.10 using a drone. So the commercial benefits are obvious.

But it’s not just e-commerce that benefits. Maersk estimate they are able to save $3000-$9000 per ship annually through delivery of spare parts by drone, rather than barges which is what they currently use. The delivery of food and medical supplies to remote, difficult to access locations such as oil rigs, research stations, islands and areas cut off by natural disasters, is another potential, even lifesaving, application.

So what is holding everything up? Government regulation that’s what! The two big problems that require solving are safety and air traffic control.

Drone Safety

The last thing anybody needs while taking their dog for a morning walk is to have a drone land on their head!! Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing methods to evaluate the risks posed by small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) to anyone on the ground.

(Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations currently prohibit any UAV flights over people. Hence the need for Amazon to obtain a special FAA waiver to make a drone delivery to the MARS conference.)

“The majority of applications would be much more effective if they weren’t restricted from operating over people, but you have to demonstrate that it can be done safely,” said Mark Blanks, the director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which runs Virginia Tech’s test site.

The Virginia Tech team have begun phase 1 of the project which is measuring the impact of drones flying into a test dummy, in pretty much the same way as vehicle crash tests are conducted.

“I see this research is having two key pieces,” Blanks said. “First, what is the risk of injury: how likely are these impacts, how hard are they, and are impacts at that level dangerous? And second, what can we do, from an engineering or operational perspective, to reduce that risk?”

“We can get a good idea of what the kinematics are, and correlate that to different rates of injury, whether it’s skull fracture, brain injury, or neck injury,” Steven Rowsen, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics stated.

There has been no deadline set for the completion of their research.

Low Altitude Air Traffic Control

This is a more complex problem to solve. Drones will have to include technology that enables them to see and avoid other aerial vehicles and potential obstacles, as well as communicate with air traffic controllers of manned vehicles. And these systems will have to be integrated into the national air traffic control system.

This is where some countries have advantages over others. It was no surprise that Amazons first autonomous drone delivery took place in the UK.

Cutting Through the Red Tape

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is not beholden to the same policy making schedule as Congress which takes far longer to enact new regulations. Also unlike in the US, where air traffic control is managed by the federal government, in the UK it is run by a company, NATS, in a public – private partnership with the government.

They conducted their first test flight of an unmanned vehicle in controlled airspace in 2015, and the CAA is working with Amazon to collect the data from its regular flight tests to help inform policy.

NASA is currently working with the FAA to create recommendations for a drone traffic management system with final results projected for 2019.

So the bottom line is that the US logistics industry will not see the huge commercial benefits of autonomous drone delivery anytime soon. But I suspect that the first country to solve the big problems and deploy commercial delivery drones, will act as a catalyst for the US to accelerate a path through government red tape. And it’s down to us , the logistics industry, to apply the right pressure and help that process along.

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