In a recent PR stunt, Amazon.com claimed that it would soon be making small package deliveries by way of drones. They named their new service Amazon Prime Air. If the mainstream media knew everything that would be involved in making this a practical and realistic operation, their stories and reports may have had a different spin. Then again, Amazon has enough clout to get publicity when and where they want it and, let’s face it – all you need to do is mention “drone” and they’re all over it. Drooooone… What the whole thing amounts to is a clever marketing trick to get some attention during one of the busiest shopping times of the year: Cyber Monday.
I am not knocking Amazon as a company, I think they’re great at what they do. I myself order most consumer goods from them. But I must call them out on this claim of theirs and thank them for giving me a little laugh about how gullible, ignorant, and lazy our media personnel have become. Yes, we all want to believe that drones delivering packages to us is something that will happen soon. It is a damn cool idea and we all want our hoverboards, flying cars, and everything else Hollywood Sci Fi films have promised us. But hit the brakes! Delivery via drone isn’t going to happen any time soon for Amazon or anyone else. It’ll take some time. From the perspective of someone who’s been a Commercial Pilot for over 10 years and has been flying MultiRotors for just over 2 – I present to you 10 reasons why Amazon Prime Air just won’t fly:
1. Lack of FAA regulations governing drones and their operators. Specifically, we need some regulations governing the operation of small scale aircraft (such as MultiRotors) that would be tasked with flying unsupervised in the vicinity of people and metropolitan areas. I say “need” because you can’t trust random unregulated humans with maintaining public safety if there are no guidelines to follow. Humans just wouldn’t act responsibly enough if there were no rules. See the idiot in Manhattan for more details on that.
2. Our current equipment is not airworthy for operations over populated areas. Pending creation of the aforementioned FAA regulations, operators will have to ensure their equipment meets very specific standards to carry out a flight over a populated area. Since those standards have not yet been outlined it is my educated guess that the equipment currently available will not meet such standards. Every real aircraft has an Airworthiness Certificate, and I think commercial drones undertaking delivery jobs would also require such a certificate.
3. It is financially unfeasible. Now Amazon has a lot of capital, but I don’t think they just plan to burn it. At this time, MultiRotors are not safe enough to fly autonomously for the purpose of package delivery without direct supervision and monitoring. This would mean that every delivery drone would require a delivery drone operator. Grossly inefficient and expensive. I also don’t know of any insurance companies that would cover this type of brand new operation at a reasonable rate. Amazon could, of course start their own insurance company if they don’t already own one.
4. Single component failure can bring down an aircraft. With current MultiRotor technology, in most cases – a single component failure can bring an aircraft right out of the sky. Lose a motor, hit the ground. Lose an electronic speed controller, hit the ground. Lose a flight computer, hit the ground. Most parents would not want to have to send their kids out to play with the warning: don’t get smacked in the head by a falling drone! We cannot have drones without redundant systems and advanced fail-safes flying around near the public.
5. Inadequate battery life. Our battery technology just isn’t there yet. Current power efficiencies just will not cut the mustard for a delivery mission. Most folks I know fly 7-12 minutes, with a few capable of 20-25 using 2 Lithium Polymer (LiPo) batteries. Throw a little package on there and the flight time will be even lower. So before we talk about drones making deliveries, what we need is better battery and motor technologies. Efficiencies must be indcreased. Want to make some $$$ – invent a more efficient power system for MultiRotors.
6. Sensor and flight control technology needs to catch up to our collective imagination. The types of control board/sensor interfaces that we’ll need are under development but just do not exist in a finished format right now. If they do, I haven’t heard of them. Think about it what a lone flying delivery drone will need to be able to contend with on say a 15 minute delivery flight.. The poor flying robot machine will be cruising around all alone. That little baby needs to be able to detect and take input from data such as gps coordinates, altitude in MSL and AGL, obstacles, moving obstacles, live vs. dead obstacles, sounds, faces, symbols, and all the other things that we all detect and react to when we leave the house. So I am thinking we’ll need items on board that go past GPS and barometers such as: radar altimeters, ultrasonic range finders, visual recognition hardware, and infrared cameras or sensors.
7. Political and social opposition. If you think Google glass met some resistance, think about how some communities will react when you tell them Amazon is planning on flying drones over their homes. There will be community meetings, calls upon the Mayor’s office, and protests over something like this. I think delivery by drone is cool, but I’m pretty sure some of my neighbors would have issues with the whole notion.
8. Battles between commercial operators and regulators have not even begun. So let’s say the FAA passes all the regulations and it’s legal for commercial operators such as Amazon.com to deliver things via drones. Great! No, complex. Lets say Amazon want’s to deliver, but so does FedEX, and UPS, and Joe’s Drugstore, and the Taco Hut, and…well you get the picture. Do regulators limit airspace that will be used for drone delivery? Do they limit the number of operators? Does bidding or a lottery take place? We can look back at the history of the airline industry to see how things worked out for them. Deregulation had a huge impact on every carrier. Will drones follow a similar course? A lot of things must be decided.
9. The USPS, UPS and FedEX just won’t have it. Will any preference be given to say the USPS, UPS, DHL, and FedEX in the making of any of the rules, regulations, laws, and other things that are to come? They’re already in the business of delivering our packages. How would this impact their business, and should it not naturally just be an extension of what they already do? Will the USPS lay off Chin, my awesome, dedicated, professional mailman? Stay tuned.
10. People will steal them for parts and surprise packages. Hey, I grew up in Brooklyn so I’m just saying – put free stuff up in the air and someone’s going to try and claim it!
If you want to be even more amused, listen to the claims these two rocket propulsion engineers made. I hope their textbook come on cd’s or memory sticks, because they won’t be lifting any accounting class textbooks any time soon: