Delivered by a drone near you – a flight of fancy?


On Dec. 1, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company is currently testing delivering packages using small helicopter drones. According to Jeff Bezos, the program named PrimeAir could be launched by 2018.

“Putting Prime Air into commercial use will take some number of years as we advance technology and wait for the necessary Federal Aviation Administration rules and regulations” the company wrote on the project’s website.

This announcement has created tremendous reactions in the press but also by other companies which have criticized the credibility of such program, denouncing an “announcement effect”. Such buzz serves two purposes. One is to draw attention away from the notorious secrecy of the company regarding its financial performance. The other one is to send a message to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Senate Committees currently considering how unmanned aircraft can be used commercially within US civil airspace.

The goal here is to put pressure on the lawmakers showing how popular can be such industry developments and consequently how unpopular they would be acting again their utilizations.

UPS, DHL and even Google were quick to strike back indicating that they are currently developing their own drone programs. For its part, eBay has tempered the competitors’ zeal, qualifying drone delivery as a “fanciful project” which is more linked to science fiction than reality. Other experts still wonder whether drone delivery would be a logistic dream or nightmare.

That said, the use of drones for commercial delivery has been considered by different industries. Even fast food companies (Tacos, beers, pizza, you name it!) declared there could be some potential applications.

For the moment following the ICAO rules of “sense and avoid” drones are not currently able to fly above inhabited areas. In addition, regulation has also to be made on beyond line of sight operations to allow this development. However, as noted by Aviation Week & Space Technology, the technology to do just that could be ready much sooner. “Vision-based navigation systems using cellphone cameras and a technique called optical flow to detect and avoid obstacles are becoming commercially available. Communicating via satellite might always be a stretch for micro-UAVs, but a system using cellphone or similar networks could keep the operator in the loop as the vehicle drops below the horizon to deliver its payload”.

According to Amazon, these deliveries could be performed in a range of 16km around warehouses. Using drones, Amazon and other retailers could partly solve the issues linked to “same-day delivery” and the notoriously expensive “last mile problem”. As Forbes notices, Amazon – as most retailers – is currently on a “hub-and-spoke” model of distribution noted. This corresponds to a large central warehouse serving as a node from which orders travel in different directions, or “spokes”. “A typical Amazon order will go from a distribution center — the Amazon hub — to a UPS or FedEx sorting facility (another hub), from which they are then divvied up among trucks to make local deliveries”.

Same-day delivery, on the other hand, requires a point-to-point model. In the hu-band-spoke model, the additional steps of connecting with a same-day shipper take too much time to actually achieve a delivery on the same day. However one short cut could be the integration of drones in a hub and spoke model.

For the moment, some unlikely and illegal drone deliveries are being tested by…convicts. As reported by AVweb, on Dec. 15, prison officials in Quebec say they have to beef up air defenses around their facilities after a remotely piloted aircraft dropped a package that likely contained drugs into the Hull Prison. “If they are able to deliver drugs then they can deliver other small objects — small cellphones, weapons” said the president of the prison guards union. The package was never recovered, neither was the aircraft….

Legislation will have to evolve in order to unleash all the potential of this industry. Companies and lawmakers are putting pressures on each other to hurry development.