Will Delivery By Drone Become a Reality?

Amazon unveils its Prime Air package delivery system

9 December 2013

Photo: Amazon

Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos has made news again with a service that just might speed up the acceptance of commercial drones. On a recent edition of “60 Minutes,” a U.S. news program, he showed off his Prime Air drone, a tiny helicopter that airlifted a package from an Amazon warehouse and delivered it to a customer’s doorstep.

The service is still years off because the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration currently limits the use of drones for commercial purposes, but the agency is working on regulations governing commercial use and is expected to issue them by 2015.

“We’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place,” Bezos says. “Safety will be our top priority, and our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards.”

In an interview with CNN, IEEE Member Missy Cummings, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, answered several questions about what issues face the Prime Air drone such as inclement weather, safety, battery life, and delivery locations.

“There are lots of details that need to be worked out, but nothing that is technologically overwhelming," she said.

Cummings predicts the company will get approval to start Prime Air in other countries before the United States. That’s because it’s full speed ahead in Europe for commercial drones. According to the New York Times article “Europe at Ease With Eyes in the Sky,” nearly 1000 unmanned vehicles are currently authorized to fly commercially in a dozen European countries, led by Britain, France, and Germany. An estimated one-third of all new drone systems in development are being made in Europe. Of those about 80 percent are being developed either exclusively or primarily for civilian purposes.

Cummings hopes that Amazon’s Prime Air is just the beginning. Using drones for beneficial civic or commercial purposes, instead of military actions, is a growing trend.

“Medical supplies, wildlife monitoring, cargo, firefighting—it’s a pretty long list of things that drones can do,” she said. “It’s reinvigorating a dying aerospace industry.

In my “Friendly Drones” post in June, I showcased others that are testing out drones, including Domino Pizza. In May, it used a small, custom-built octacopter to deliver two large pepperoni pizzas to customers in Guildford, outside of London. I also discussed the impact commercial drones have on the economy and engineering jobs.

Having a retail and technology giant like Amazon pushing for commercial drones could speed things up for everyone, according to Cummings. But I also think Bezos is poised to introduce another of his disruptive technologies. After all, Amazon popularized online shopping, driving many bricks-and-mortar stores out of business. His Kindle e-reader is threatening the print publishing business, especially newspapers (one of which he recently purchased). He is poised to do the same with package delivery systems. Watch out overnight shippers, cargo carriers, truckers, and other delivery companies.

What concerns do you have about drones delivering your packages?

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