Delivery Couriers Drone on

Delivery CouriersLast December Amazon unveiled its plan to deliver packages to customers using an unmanned aircraft system they call ‘Prime Air’. Since then other major courier delivery companies have announced similar projects. But are delivery drones really on the way?

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As soon as Amazon unveiled its Prime Air ‘package delivery drone’ project the sceptics were quick to conclude that the plan would never, excuse the pun, get off the ground.  

Obstacles abound: collisions with overhead cables, with birds and conventional aircraft; packages being nicked, eaten by the dog, dropped into the fish pond, onto roofs, or on someone’s head – and of course, invasion of privacy (like, will they have cameras?).

But we can probably assume that the folks at Amazon, one of the most inventive organisations in the world, have already given thought to these concerns. The company’s plan is to be ready to implement the company’s Air Prime service in the U.S. by 2015 – provided they can get clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which is itself, quite understandably, concerned about safety.

 

Drone Regulations

Unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) – drones to you and me – have been in use in the USA, and elsewhere, for over 20 years. Up to now at least they’re not permitted to fly in U.S. airspace without special permission, currently given only on a case-by-case basis. And the new rules being contemplated by the FAA for these proposed delivery drones are fairly daunting. They include, for example, having one technician being assigned to each drone – with each such ground-based pilot having total control and override authority over each machine.

Smaller drones such as those used by amateur hobbyists come under the ‘remote controlled model aircraft’ category. Such craft must not be used for commercial purposes and can operate only below 400ft. (122 metres) above ground level, and well away from airports.

The FAA regularly allows the larger type of drone into the air for law enforcement assignments – such as border patrol operations and tracking crime perpetrators, as well as disaster relief and rescue missions. They’re currently prohibited from operating in populated urban areas – the very places, of course, to where Amazon and other like-minded delivery service operators want to send their automated flying machines.

 

Drones in Ireland

Around a dozen firms are licensed in the Republic by the Irish Aviation Authority to operate unmanned aircraft systems. These must weigh under 150kg and are subject to national legislation – although it’s reported that the European Aviation Safety Agency will shortly introduce pan-European legislation to cover the operations of systems weighing over 150kg. The use of drones around Ireland is concentrated mainly in photographic work, land surveys and safety inspections of power plants and oilrigs.

The Irish Defence Forces have been operating a small fleet of Israeli-built unarmed drones since 2007 (a slightly small fleet now, as one drone went AOL in African skies – and hasn’t been seen since). The Irish Government says these craft are unarmed and are used in information-gathering exercises.

Versadrones, an Irish-based company based in Skibbereen, Co Cork, produces a range of highly advanced drones. Of carbon fibre construction, these machines are mainly designed for aerial photography and video applications.

 

Military UAVs

A large number of countries across the globe are in the business of producing drones – for both commercial and military use. The U.S. military, with its 7,500-strong fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has unmatched expertise in this area. The Pentagon uses its UAVs to carry out reconnaissance and forward observation missions, while its Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper ‘hunter-killers’ are used to deliver unsolicited messages to recipients in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, with some inevitably, and tragically, going to the wrong recipients.

China is particularly well advanced in the delivery of goods to remote areas by way of unmanned airborne carriers. In recent years a huge number of such machines have been developed by universities and research institutes in that country, the majority being unmanned blimps, unmanned helicopters and micro air vehicles.

 

Prime Air and Parcel-copter

Amazon’s Prime Air project is scheduled to launch next year, 2015. And while there are obstacles in the path, it’s reasonable to assume that Amazon, a company that has never had much regard for conventional methods of doing business (and has attained 225 million customers around the world on the way) must know when it’s worth pursuing an idea.

Another leader in delivery services, Deutsche Post DHL, the world’s leading postal and logistics services group, is actively testing its own autonomous aircraft delivery system, or drone, called the Parcel-copter. Although DHL has carried out initial tests of delivery by Parcel-copter near the group’s headquarters in Bonn, Germany, it says that technology fans will have to wait a while yet, as there are no immediate plans to use their small unmanned aircraft for regular deliveries. UPS, another leader in the parcel delivery sector, has been experimenting with its own version of automated flying carriers.

 

Pie in the Sky?

In what sounds suspiciously like a case of a ‘keeping up with Joneses’ publicity stunt, Domino’s pizzas are reported to be working on ways to replace delivery boys with drones. Not to be outdone, McDonalds would then surely get into the race with their own McFly act.

For those of us in the Handling & Distribution sector, a profusion of delivery drones skirting the rooftops might be an interesting concept. But if you’re looking to the skies anytime soon for your Big Mac order, you’d better be patient. It’s be a matter of ‘Watch this Space’.

nealsherman@europe.com