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Air Support

April 1, 2014

When Amazon head Jeff Bezos unveiled Amazon Prime Air, a fleet of unmanned robot helicopters that his company plans to use to make parcel deliveries, it was a masterstroke of PR. The announcement came in November 2013 over the Thanksgiving weekend, one of the USA’s biggest shopping periods, and made headlines around the world. But while the timing led cynics to deride Bezos’s drone delivery test project as little more than a cheap publicity stunt, others saw the plan as a true taste of things to come.

Technology enthusiasts predicted that drone postal delivery could help usher in a whole new era where the half-hour deliveries Bezos was promising could enable the creation of a ‘sharing economy’ in which goods could be rented and returned rather than bought outright. However, others were worried about the safety of thousands of drones buzzing around our towns, with one observer noting wryly in the Washington Post: “It’s all fun and games till Sally loses a finger.”

But although there’s little chance our streets will be swarming with postal robots any time soon, the signs are that drone delivery is being looked at seriously by posts worldwide.

Just a few weeks after Amazon’s announcement DHL used a quadcopter to fly a package of medicine from a pharmacy in Bonn, Germany, to the company’s headquarters on the other side of the Rhine. Emblazoned with the DHL logo, the Paketkopter – as the drone was called – flew at a height of 50m for 1km, taking just two minutes to complete its journey. DHL said its test flight was for research only and insisted that it has no plans to begin drone deliveries any time soon.


Australian example

In Australia, however, the concept will soon become a reality thanks to student textbook rental start-up Zookal, which will launch its own fleet of delivery drones – called Flirtey – to drop off book orders in Sydney this year “pending final regulatory approval”, which is expected to be granted around March this year. Zookal’s fleet of six Flirteys will take off from the company’s distribution centre, which is located near to the University of Sydney and will deliver packages within two to three minutes, locating the customer via the Flirtey Android app.

CEO Ahmed Haider says that due to the location density of most Australian universities they will focus initially on “hyper local” delivery. “The drones are equipped with a delivery mechanism that lowers the parcel to the consumer to collect,” he says. “The parcel is not dropped to the ground, but the drone hovers above the consumer’s GPS location and safely lowers the package.”

Zookal has been helped
by a friendly regulatory climate in Australia, one of the few countries that permit commercial drone use. Despite Amazon’s announcement, commercial unmanned vehicle use remains illegal in the USA. That looks set to change in the near future.

Right: Flirtey is a joint
venture between Zookal and software company Vimbra. The co-founders are Zookal CEO Ahmed Haider (left)
and Vimbra CEO Matthew Sweeny (right)


Law and order

An aviation law enacted by President Obama in 2012 already allows the use of unmanned aircraft by public safety entities such as the police, firefighters and other emergency services. Among the agencies that have taken advantage of the law are the US Coast Guard, which used a drone in a recent raid on a boat trafficking over 560kg of cocaine in the eastern Pacific, and the Department of Homeland Security, which uses Predator drones for border surveillance.

Currently the other main non-military use of drones is for scientific research. They are being used to perform ice cap studies in the Arctic, track coastal erosion and monitor populations of endangered species.

According to Les Dorr, a spokesman for the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the signs are that the 2012 law will be extended to include commercial craft by 2015, which is when Amazon plans to introduce Prime Air. Dorr says the FAA ruling due next year is likely to include authorisation for “small unmanned commercial aircraft under 55 lb”. “There’s real growth in this area,” says Dorr. “The FAA is already predicting 7,500 small unmanned aircraft in the air in the next few years.”


Safety testing

In late December 2013 the FAA announced the creation of six US test sites where it will generate the data that will determine how the commercial drone industry will be regulated.

High on its priorities during the testing phase will be how to make the craft safe and secure. Although most drones have built-in anti-collision technology to keep them clear of trees, buildings, birds and – assuming the technology becomes popular – skies filled with other drones, towns and cities throng with people and if something were to go wrong the consequences could be serious.

Ron Tolido, chief technology officer for application services at the consultancy firm Capgemini, says that well-established industry safety standards are already in place to help ensure public safety. “A sensor can sense its surroundings thousands of times a second so that a drone can adjust its position and course. Even complex swarms of delivery drones should not lead to collisions,” Tolido says.

To minimise the chance of collision, Haider says Zookal’s Flirteys use set flight paths that avoid residential areas where possible. Along with multiple failsafe mechanisms and collision avoidance technology, Haider claims the safety features make the risk of accident “the same as a commercial airliner falling from the sky”. In other words, very small.

But it’s not just safety issues that concern the public. Ask most people what comes to mind when you say drone and they’ll likely think of the technology’s original use as a weapon of war. Mario Mairena, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade body representing 8,000 members in 60 countries, admits that the technology’s military background has led to an image problem. “There’s too many negative connotations because of how they are used in theatres of war,” says Mairena.

As a result the AUVSI never uses the word drone in its literature, preferring instead the term unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

“Some people are against drones because they think they’ll be used for spying, but telephoto lenses are used for surveillance and no one talks about banning cameras,” says Mairena, who says all AUVSI members sign a set of guidelines that expressly forbid the use of their drones for surveillance.

Left: Regulations to expand drone technology to the commercial sector will generate over US$82bn for the US economy in the next 10 years, according to AUVSI


Practical challenges

Public perceptions aside, there are other important obstacles to drone delivery. Richard Wishart runs the technology consultancy Delivery Management, advising posts on new technology solutions. He sees unmanned drones as a potentially disruptive technology but only if the “practical issues around the edges” can be ironed out. Wishart says: “Weather is a detrimental factor. From my understanding most drones don’t perform well in high winds. So what happens to your deliveries when it’s blowing a gale?”

Added to this, he says, are the weight, size and range limitations of the drones. Amazon’s Octocopters can carry a maximum payload of 2.3kg and can travel no more than 16km. Meanwhile the payload boxes showcased in the trial could fit parcels of no more than about 25cm in length. “Logistics relies on variability, so a delivery system with such a narrow range of capabilities will struggle to succeed,” says Wishart.

It’s early days and there’s every chance that future generations of delivery drones could extend their range and payload capacity. What may be more difficult to get around is the problem of where to leave parcels. In suburban, semi-rural or rural areas the drone could drop parcels on a driveway, front lawn or even – as Wishart suggests – on a specially designed helipad. But what about inner cities? Short of flying in through the window there’s no obvious solution for how a drone would get a package to someone in a tenth floor apartment, for example. Tolido suggests an “intermediate phase” where parcels could be delivered to local hubs.

“Door-to-door consumer delivery will clearly take more time to develop,” he says. “Both hubs and eventually homes will need specific equipment such as docking platforms and storage facilities. Positioning can be done very precisely, so this will not be an inhibitor.”


Hope beyond hype

None of the obstacles to drone delivery are insurmountable, says Wishart, who is keen to point out that the concept fits well into the emerging trend in logistics, spurred by the rise of e-commerce and omni-channel retail, for moving warehousing closer to the client. “Their short ranges mean drones will need to operate from local warehouses,” he says. “Because of this they integrate well with the new paradigm.”

Advocates offer other advantages drones have over traditional delivery methods. For one thing they can work all the time and they are relatively cheap. Twenty drones cost as much as a single FedEx truck, and while Haider won’t reveal the Zookal drone’s operational costs, he expects it will come in
at less than current same-day delivery fees.

If postal companies choose to invest in drones they will be joining a burgeoning market, says Mairena. A report by the AUVSI projects that regulations to expand drone technology to the commercial sector will help create more than 100,000 new jobs and generate more than US$82bn for the US economy in the next 10 years.

Around 80% of this growth is predicted to come in agriculture. Drones can be used to precisely spray crops and identify possible outbreaks of disease before they spoil a harvest. The companies Mairena represents look longingly to Japan, where the majority of agricultural crop spraying is now managed by a fleet of 2,300 unmanned helicopters.

The agricultural bias aside, Mairena sees
no reason why drone delivery won’t be part
of this brave new
world. “I think this is
one of the smartest commercial applications of the new technology I’ve heard of.”

Right: Amazon’s Octocopters could
deliver up to 86% of
the items that the company dispatches

April 1, 2014

 

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