Are Delivery Drones the Future?

More and more people are shopping online nowadays. Rather than heading out into the hustle and bustle of the high street, all it takes is a few clicks and you can have your desired item at your door within a couple of days, or within 24 hours, if you’re willing to pay a little extra. But to some, next-day delivery is only the beginning.

It all seems very futuristic, like a scene out of the latest sci-fi movie, but it has been well-publicised over the past few years that some delivery companies have actually been researching the possibilities of using unmanned drones to deliver packages to their customers. As bizarre as it sounds, a project such as this would completely revolutionise the way that couriers operate, but how long until the idea takes off? (Pardon the pun!)

A brief history of drones

One of the first online retailers to explore the use of drones as delivery vehicles was Amazon. Their latest project, Amazon Prime Air, would see items packaged into orange boxes and transported directly to the destination. According to the project’s website, the aim is to have the parcel packaged, sent and in the customer’s hands within a mere 30 minutes. With consumers becoming increasingly demanding, it’s no surprise that companies are assessing new-fangled ways to improve the speed of parcel deliveries.

According to The Guardian, Amazon plans to utilise an area of sky they have dubbed “virgin airspace” which will sit above 200 feet, where the majority of buildings reach their peak, and below 500 feet, which marks the beginning of general aviation. It is in this little pocket of airspace high above us that Amazon hopes to have highly technical and autonomous drones, each weighing less than 55 lbs, flying at a maximum of 50 miles per hour to deliver packages. It’s mind-boggling stuff.


All (test) systems go

The news provider also reported that in July 2014, Amazon applied for a 333 Exemption with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This permit would allow the retailer to conduct outdoor experiments with their drones as parcel couriers but eight months after the letter was sent, the FAA had failed to respond. By the time they did so in March 2015, awarding Amazon an “experimental airworthiness certificate” that permitted the testing of a specific drone model, Amazon had developed a new drone, which meant the permit had become obsolete.

In the true spirit of scientific experimentation, Amazon haven’t let any barriers hold them back and have moved their test site out of the United States to a mere 2,000 feet away into the Canadian border. The Canadian government have given Amazon their full blessing to conduct experimental flights in the recently-acquired plot of land, which is completely open but lined with oak and fir trees to keep it safe from prying eyes.

What does the future hold?

So, in all the excitement created by visions of self-flying drones, what does the future hold for parcel delivery? Well, engineers working on the Prime Air project say that they are confident that delivery drones will be in operation within the next few years, with other companies such as DHL already conducting tests for their own ‘parcelcopter’ delivering emergency medication. Feeling a bit disappointed? That’s not surprising given the buzz of excitement and anticipation given off when Amazon first confirmed their plans in December 2013, but these things cannot be rushed. And, as expected, the tests have run into a few problems that must be overcome before the drones can be used safely.

Aside from the FAA’s delay in granting permission for testing, incidentally they have recently given the go-ahead for testing in the United States, there are also a number of safety issues that must be tested and overcome before you find a delivery drone on your doorstep.

The drones need to be able to act like horses, rather than cars. For example, a drone faced with a brick wall needs the ability to stop and avoid it (like a horse) rather than crashing straight into it (like a car). Many people have also voiced security concerns, both about the drones themselves and the packages they are carrying; the last thing you want is for your parcel to end up in someone else’s backyard, or a nearby river!

Plus, there are a number of legal obstacles that must be overcome before your delivery is made by flying drone, not limited to laws regarding the occupation of airspace and rules about always having the drone within sight of the operator.


Fantasy or reality?

There is no doubt that we are still a few years away from having our parcels delivered by air within 30 minutes of clicking a button, but the prospect is nevertheless exciting. As the online retailing world expands rapidly, so does the need to establish more ambitious plans for fulfilling the customer’s needs.

Many people still claim that it will simply never happen. That there are too many problems that need to be overcome and too many dangers simply waiting to sabotage deliveries (drone pirates, anyone?). But many people never thought mobile phones could exist either, and when cars first appeared on our roads they weren’t trusted at all. We say, the technology is here, all we have to do is wait.

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