AI News, Amazon Promises Package Delivery By Drone: Is It for Real?

Amazon Promises Package Delivery By Drone: Is It for Real?

The reason that Amazon can say this, and that it sounds so exciting, is that it is technically possible to put together a demo like the one they've just unveiled, where you have a drone autonomously transport an object from one place to another.

That sounds great, but here are just a few of the existing issues that an idea like this is going to have to robustly solve before urban drone delivery on a commercial scale will work:

Aerial maps usually aren't updated frequently enough to show obstacles, and if you leave it in the hands of the consumer (through, say, a GPS-enabled app), you're going to get a bunch of people giving your drone the coordinates of their homes with 50 meters of error.

This is certainly possible, but doing it dynamically (in real-time on board the drone) is going to require a lot of computing power and some relatively sophisticated sensors, like (at a bare minimum) a camera that's high-resolution enough to pick out black power lines against black pavement.

Even small motors with small props hurt (try sticking your finger into the prop of an AR Drone while it's hovering), and big motors with big props can likely cause significant injury.

What's more likely is that new rules will allow unmanned aircraft in public airspace, which is generally 500 or 1,000 feet away from all obstacles (including the ground).

In keeping with a 1946 Supreme Court Ruling (read more about this here), operating aircraft (or anything else) too low over private property constitutes a violation of the property owner's rights.

What this means is that it's probably not going to be legal to fly unmanned drones over private property below 500 feet, which makes it a lot more difficult to make deliveries.

With companies like Google and its partners already offering same-day delivery (within a three hour window) for all sorts of things of any size and weight in some urban areas, is there really that much value to attempting to use (by definition) expensive and problematic robots to narrow that three hour window to 30 minutes?

The point is, I just don't see urban drone delivery happening in the next few years, and I feel like when companies (especially big companies like Amazon) make claims like these, it ends up creating unrealistic expectations for robotics as a whole.

We believe the airspace is safest when small drones are separated from most manned aircraft traffic, and where airspace access is determined by capabilities.

Through this private customer trial, we will gather data to continue improving the safety and reliability of our systems and operations, bringing us one step closer to realizing this amazing innovation for all our customers.

Watch Amazon’s Prime Air make its first public U.S. drone delivery

Amazon completed its first public demonstration of a Prime Air drone delivery in the U.S. earlier this week, ferrying sunscreen to attendees at an Amazon-hosted conference in Palm Springs, Calif.

That trial was in the small rural town in the Cambridge area of England — not in the U.S. In order for Amazon to make drone delivery available broadly in the U.S., the company will have to wait for the Federal Aviation Administration to craft rules about how to fly over populated areas and beyond the line of sight of the operator.

Amazon Reveals New Details About Drone Deliveries

Amazon can already deliver items to some customers just hours after they’ve been ordered.

But the online retailer says that time window will shrink down to just 30 minutes if it can deliver packages via drones through its Amazon Prime Air service.

It’s unclear exactly if or when the program will launch, especially since regulators have yet to establish clear-cut rules around commercial drone use.

Amazon’s marketplace offers a broad variety of items, so the company had to narrow down the types of packages that would be feasible to deliver by drone.

When Pogue asked about whether or not Amazon is worried that someone could intercept something like a TV just by shooting it down, Misener responded: “I suppose they could shoot at trucks, too.”

Amazon has said in the past that it’s testing different drone designs to learn the best way to deliver packages in different environments.

Misener expanded on this when talking to Pogue, saying that Amazon is looking at ways to make drone deliveries to areas that range from rural farmhouses to high-rise city skyscrapers.

When Pogue asked if the problem could be solved by designating a spot in a common area like a roof or courtyard, Misener answered: “That’s entirely possible.”

Amazon will be contributing a new type of vehicle to the mix when Prime Air eventually launches, but Misener says Amazon’s drones won’t be too noisy or disruptive.

Google has previously said that it wants to start delivering packages via drone by 2017, and in October Walmart applied to U.S. regulators for permission to test drones for delivery as well.

The Economics of Drone Delivery

After all, federal law prohibited commercial drones from flying over populated areas, and airplanes were already experiencing close calls with hobbyists’ drones.

Drone deliveries look like the future: unmanned quadcopters rapidly delivering packages to our doors, eliminating both wait times and the cost of human labor.

The current prototypes that companies have unveiled usually carry just one package, and after the drone makes its delivery, it has to fly all the way back to its homebase to recharge its batteries and pick up the next package.

In late November, Amazon released a slick video demo of Prime Air, a drone delivery system designed to “get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.” It comes on the heels of a similar production from Google’s Project Wing, which showed a drone delivering dog food in Queensland, Australia.

If Amazon charged customers $1 per delivery, Keeney estimates, the company could earn a 50% return on its investment in drone infrastructure while offering same-day delivery that is significantly cheaper than current alternatives.

Her analysis ignores depreciation, and questions like: “How will drones avoid airplanes and deliver packages in Manhattan?” And there’s another core issue: $12.92 is the price UPS charges to consumers, but its actual marginal cost of delivering one more package along a route they are delivering to already is probably closer to $2. When push comes to shove, will drones be able to compete? The rest of her analysis incorporates the costs of electricity, backup battery packs, bandwidth, upgrades to facilities, and so on.

Keeney’s assumptions also stick to the middle ground: She presumes that Amazon will gain permission to fly drones out of sight, with each operator responsible for 10-12 drones, but not that Amazon will soon automate the entire process.

Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos says it took their drones 15 minutes to fly 4.4 pounds of cargo 6.2 miles, and that the Maseru network successfully covered an area 1.5 times the size of Manhattan.

The flight demonstrates two aspects of the future of drones and air freight: that technology is not the limiting factor, and that drones’ most obvious appeal is not for personal deliveries.

The FAA has banned all commercial uses of drones in the U.S., and while the agency increasingly grants exemptions, the Flirtey flight is the only freight exemption that allowed a real delivery rather than testing in unpopulated areas.

The FAA currently requires companies with exemptions, like Amazon, to have an operator with a pilot’s license keep each drone within line of sight—a mandate that makes deliveries completely uneconomical.

“We cannot get medicine to them reliably, they cannot get critical supplies, and they cannot get their goods to market in order to create a sustainable income.” For the Matternet team, the most interesting question was not the cost per delivery.

But given that building and maintaining roads is a long and expensive process, drones could offer a quick and cheap way to (imperfectly) connect the billion people identified by Raptopoulos as cut off from most of the world.

“More specialized cases like delivering vaccines that need to be refrigerated to regional hospitals… Niche deliveries where speed is critical.” In these cases, for cargo that is small, light, valuable, and time-sensitive, cost is much less of a factor.

A drone delivery may save a life by getting delicate medicine to a rural patient, or keep an oil rig running by delivering a key piece of machinery.

Despite the current inability of drones to match the efficiency of a delivery truck’s milk run, the economics of delivering air freight by drone seem compelling.

In the meantime, drone deliveries will probably get their start in remote areas like Lesotho, or in use cases like flying vital machine parts to oil rigs and mines, or by collecting data on shipping to make it more efficient.

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