April 1, 2015

When will drones deliver our Easter eggs?

Drones deliver Easter Eggs (photo collage: Chesky/Shutterstock; senoldo/Fotolia)
All good things come from above
German kids have always had a rough deal over Easter. In the UK, kind relations bring huge chocolate eggs in glossy wrapping paper. But German children are expected to hunt for painted hard-boiled eggs in the garden.

Admittedly, the April weather is not quite as bad as in Blighty, but it always looks more like a survival course for the young than an enjoyable ritual for the sweet-toothed.

There may yet be hope for German boys and girls, however. In the foreseeable future, they will be able to order their own Paschal goodies on a smartphone and need only look to the sky for online manna to arrive. Drones could soon deliver all.

If Amazon & Co. had their way, all this would be tomorrow. But, alas, dear children of the Federal Republic, you have a formidable adversary blocking your path: the US Federal Aviation Authority, known to its friends as the FAA.

Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon.com (photo: Amazon)
Jeff Bezos: "Drones are going to work, they are going to come, and they will be a lot of fun!"
Amazon at any rate is deeply frustrated. Ever since CEO Jeff Bezos announced at the end of 2013 that the US online giant wants to trial delivery by so-called "octocopters", there has been considerable media attention and public interest. But, as so often, legislation lags technical progress.

Eight months after applying for an exemption, Amazon is now faced with the FAA's recently published guidelines for the commercial use of small drones. The draft proposals, which may not be finalised until 2017, could at best be termed a yellow traffic light for the industry.

The agency proposes that drones weigh less than 25kg (55lbs) and that operators have passed a basic aeronautical test. They may only fly during the day and must keep within view of their controllers. No flights are allowed to go higher than 150m (500ft) or over people.

All this sounds perfectly sensible in what is after all a complex airspace, and the proposals have been called "a good first step" by the US lobby group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems. 

It is also believed that FAA boss Michael Huerta might be prepared to loosen the rules and allow out-of-sight flights if, for instance, collision-avoidance technology improves, as it surely will.

Good for cyber shepherds

But, although the new guidelines might be adequate for herding sheep, they would not allow, for instance, sports venues to be filmed. The proposals could be a potential deal-breaker for Jeff Bezos who wants to establish a drone delivery service in only four or five years.   

With more than 500,000 drones sold in the US over the last three years alone, the market for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems) is clearly taking off. Some American companies refuse to accept the long wait for an outdoor testing licence and are proceeding without one – illegally. Unmanned robots now cost less than a few hundred dollars a piece, so the entry threshold is low.

Amazon Prime Air (photo: Amazon.com)
Ever new prototypes: An Amazon Prime Air drone
As a big group in the public spotlight, Amazon.com obviously has to tread much more carefully. Talking before a US Senate subcommittee, Paul Misener, VP Global Public Policy, has expressed his frustration at the slow progress towards the liberalisation of flying robots.

Fed up with making test flights indoors at its headquarters laboratory in Seattle, Misener has also made it clear that the e-commerce giant is now looking to extend the testing of its drones in countries where legislation is less onerous.

These include the UK (Cambridge and Wales), Israel, and possibly Dubai/UAE. In China, Alibaba boss Jack Ma recently pulled a publicity stunt by delivering packets of tea by drone to 450 customers in Peking, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Secret site in Canada

Talking to The Guardian newspaper, Gur Kimchi, head of Amazon Prime Air, has revealed that the company is now testing drones, perfectly legally, in neighbouring Canada. The choice of site in British Columbia, only 600m (2,000ft) from the American border, however, sends a clear message to US legislators.

Parallel to this, Amazon.com is beefing up its team of experts and lobbyists. Only this Monday, the company announced that it has hired Sean Cassidy, a former no. 2 man at the Air Line Pilots Association, to help "partner relationships" with government authorities.

According to The Guardian, Amazon is using the "secret" site to "fly autonomous drones of less than 55lbs (25kg) at 50mph (80kmh) above 200ft (60m), where most buildings end, and below 500ft (150m), where general aviation begins...through corridors of ten miles, carrying payloads of up to 5lbs (2.3kg)." Apparently such payloads account for 86 per cent of all the company's packages.

Meanwhile on this side of the pond, the EU Commission has asked the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to devise community-wide regulations for the civil use of drones. In Germany unmanned flying robots must be authorised by Federal State aviation authorities.

DHL drone flys off to Juist (photo: DHL)
A DHL drone starting from the German North Sea coast en route for the East Frisian island of Juist
However, DHL, the logistics subsidiary of the German Post Office, obtained a special permit from the Federal Ministry of Transport and the German Aviation Authority (DFS) at the end of last year to test the first drone-delivery service operating beyond line-of-sight in Europe.

Permission was obtained for its Paketopter to bring medicine and urgent supplies from the German mainland 12km over the North Sea to the East Frisian island of Juist.

DHL is currently evaluating the nearly 40 test flights made so far, but confirmed to Lebensmittel Zeitung this week that it has not decided whether to continue the project.

Clearly there are many questions that still need to be answered. Who loads the individual drones in the distribution centres? Can it ever be more economical to send scores of them for every delivery van? Where can they land and who unloads them? Who takes delivery when clients live in a block of flats, as is often the case in Germany?

Lukas Wrede, CEO of Skycart, a drone shipping service for retailers based in Newark/California, admits that safe pick-up and delivery is one of the major challenges especially in populated areas. Beyond the obvious advantages in terms of environmental impact, he underlines the convenience aspect for the consumer:

"We believe that products should come to the customer, not the other way around. This is only possible when home delivery is more convenient than shopping in a local store. Home delivery needs to be quick and affordable."

Wrede believes that he also has a cost advantage in terms of systems efficiency: "While processes of ground shipping can hardly be optimized, technology will change the game. Therefore we are building a drone shipping system to deliver purchases in 30 minutes or less to the customer's front door at very low fees."

At least American customers, who often pay a 5$ express fee for same-day delivery, seem happy to cough up more for a speedy service. Research by the Wall Street Journal has revealed that one in three online clients would accept a 20$ surcharge for delivery in under one hour. Skycart, for instance, offers a 30-minute, 24/7 delivery service within a radius of 20km.

So perhaps German kids really will have their Easter eggs delivered soon by flying robots. Jeff Bezos at any rate remains undeterred by the FAA and says he is still seriously serious: "Drones are going to work, they are going to come, and they will be a lot of fun!" 

Related article in German: By Mike Dawson in
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 14, 02.04.2015

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Easter egg (photo: Getty)
Enjoy one of your last old-fashioned Easters!

Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Frank Brown
    Created 2 April, 2015 10:50 | Permanent link

    Easter Egg Drones

    Dear Mr Dawson,

    Looking at the date of your latest Blog, one finds that it was posted on 1st April, i.e. April Fools Day. Could this be one of your excellent jokes?

  2. Mike Dawson
    Created 2 April, 2015 11:02 | Permanent link

    Not an April Fools Day Joke

    Dear Mr Brown,

    Aficionados of April Fools Day claim that jokes can only be made on April 1st up until midday. Therefore, a blog posted at 21:30 CET, strictly speaking, doesn't count. In this particular instance, no prank was intended. However, the Editorial Board of Lebensmittel Zeitung wishes to state that it reserves the right to make jokes on any day of the year.

  3. Gabriel
    Created 16 September, 2015 18:34 | Permanent link

    Logistics drones

    This is very interesting. Today logistics are a pain in the ass for all people that work in ecommerce. A solution like that, applied to a portion of the deliveries, would be great.
    I also know that today this is hard to make real, but I hope to see something like this in the future.

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