Amazon is ready for its drones to fly, but government isn’t

An experimental drone delivery of products from Amazon.com.
Amazon
An experimental drone delivery of products from Amazon.com.

Like a scene from a science-fiction film, the video shows a sleek airborne robot landing on a suburban lawn to deliver a new pair of shoes. It may be the shopping of the very-near future as envisioned by Amazon.com, which on Sunday offered the most vivid glimpse of its so-called Prime Air service to deliver packages within 30 minutes of ordering.

The new video released to YouTube shows a box of soccer shoes being loaded into the belly of a custom-designed drone. Climbing to around 400 feet the drone whisks along at 55-plus miles an hour to a suburban home with a landing pad sporting the Amazon logo on its lawn.

“One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road,” Amazon said in an accompanying statement on its website.

Viewed more than 2.5 million times, it was one of most popular videos on YouTube by Monday afternoon. But Amazon’s delivery service is nowhere near ready for lift off — at least as far as the Federal Aviation Administration is concerned.

The problem isn’t technological, but regulatory. Amazon and other companies that want to deliver goods with drones can’t launch until the Federal Aviation Administration issues regulations to govern the practice. And the agency isn’t likely to have those ready for several years—much to Amazon’s frustration.

The agency, charged with ensuring the safety of the nation’s airspace, is trying to determine how hundreds or thousands of small robotic aircraft can buzz around over densely populated areas without slamming into each other or the humans below.

“There would have to be a very thorough program of testing,” said Wayne Plucker, an aerospace technology analyst for Frost & Sullivan.

That timetable doesn’t sit well with Amazon, which is anxious to get its delivery service going.

The company had applied to the FAA in July 2014, for permission to test the Prime Air service in the US. Months later, its application still pending, Amazon was reportedly so frustrated that it moved the drone testing just across the US border to an undisclosed location in Canada. And at a congressional hearing in March, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for Global Public Policy, vented at the FAA, saying the US is lagging other countries in advancing commercial uses for drones.

“This low level of government attention and slow pace are inadequate, especially compared to the regulatory efforts in other countries,” he said. “What the FAA needs is impetus, lest the United States fall further behind.”

One month later the FAA granted Amazon permission to research Prime Air in the US. The company now says it conducts tests of the machines in “multiple international locations.”

Amazon declined to comment further. It said on its website the drone service would only begin “when and where we have the regulatory support needed to safely realize our vision.”

Plucker said the video could be the online retailer’s way of ginning up public support and pressuring the FAA to finalize its rules.

Indeed, in its new video Amazon seemingly addresses one of the FAA’s central concerns: the company said its drones use sensors to detect and avoid other objects in the air and on the ground.

The agency is already late in drawing up regulations for the commercial use of short-range drones, the kind used for wedding or real estate photography, or to inspect power lines. The process began in 2012 and final regulations were supposed to have been issued in October. Instead, the agency expects those to come sometime in 2016.

Those drones, the FAA has said, must be operated by a human, who has to stay within sight of the robot at all times.

The Amazon drone program poses a much greater challenge, because it will use totally automated aircraft guides by Global Positioning System satellites; no human pilots will be involved. Moreover those drones will be able to travel for miles, entirely on their own, according to Amazon.

The FAA is not close to permitting the drones. The agency only launched its program to develop regulations for this class of drones in May.

“It’s going to take at least another three years to prove the safety of going beyond line-of-sight,” said Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot Corp., who now run CyPhy Works Inc. of Danvers, which makes drones for police and military agencies.

The Amazon aircraft shown in the new video is a working prototype, one of several designs the company has been testing since it first proposed drone delivery two years ago. The company said it weighs less than 55 pounds, and can deliver a package weighing up to five pounds as far as 15 miles.

Some analysts said the video raised a number of questions.

Dan Kara, a robotics analyst for ABI Research in New York, noted the customer in the video has a big backyard. But he questioned if there are enough such customers with big yards to make the concept work, and asked how Amazon would deliver to millions of shoppers who live in apartment buildings.

And Plucker observed that the Amazon drone is only delivering one package at a time, a highly inefficient way compared to the hundreds that firms such as United Parcel Service deliver from a single truck.

“That sure makes it hard to build a business case for it,” Plucker said.

Greiner is far more optimistic. She argues that once the drones are paid for, they’ll cost virtually nothing to run, except for routine replacement of their rechargeable batteries. The elimination of human labor costs will make them a very efficient delivery system, she said.

 

 

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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