If any company has the scale and influence to turn drones into a mainstream feature of the UK retail scene, it’s Amazon. CDP’s Andrew Seymour examines how close the king of ecommerce is to dominating British airspace.
There was once a time when it was perfectly acceptable for a product to arrive 28 days after it was ordered. Then ecommerce happened and all that changed overnight. Suddenly, despatch times shortened to just a handful of days, and then, as is customary now, next-day delivery became the norm.
Ecommerce giant Amazon has, of course, since made same-day delivery possible with its popular Prime service, but it would appear that even that is no longer enough. The company’s ultimate goal is to provide customers with their goods within half an hour of the order being placed, and for that it needs another mode of transport — drones to be precise.
This prompted it to set up its ‘Prime Air’ division and it has been working ever since to foster a “future delivery system” that can transport packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.
Amazon has already publicly tested the concept, delivering the first ever Prime Air parcel to a house in Cambridge back in 2016.
“Prime Air has great potential to enhance the services we already provide to millions of customers by providing rapid parcel delivery that will also increase the overall safety and efficiency of the transportation system,” it stated.
Indeed, the whole crux of Prime Air is to develop a system that is safe, environmentally sound and enhances the services it already provides to millions of customers. The company insists that it is rapidly experimenting and iterating on Prime Air inside its generation research and development labs as it bids to realise its vision.
What we do know, courtesy of patent applications, is that it is serious about its objectives. Earlier this year, it submitted a request for an airborne fulfilment center (AFC) and the use of UAVs to deliver items from the AFC to users.
The patent describes how the AFC may be an airship that remains at a high altitude and delivery UAVs may be deployed from the AFC to deliver ordered items to user-designated delivery locations. As the UAVs descend, they can navigate horizontally toward a user-specified delivery location using little-to-no power, other than to stabilise the UAV and/or guide the direction of descent.
The patent goes onto explain that after completing an item delivery, the UAV may navigate to a nearby groundbased materials handling facility or a shuttle replenishment location.
Because of the high altitude of the AFC, navigation by a UAV back to the AFC may not be feasible, or an efficient use of power. By utilising an AFC for the storage and delivery of items using UAVs, the power required to complete an item delivery is substantially reduced.
Rather than the UAV having to operate at power from the time it departs the materials handling facility to the delivery location and back to the materials handling facility (or another location), the UAV may be deployed from the AFC and descend under the forces of gravity towards a delivery location using little-to-no-power.
Only as the UAV approaches earth does it need to fully engage the UAV motors to maintain flight and complete delivery of the item, according to the details described in the patent.
Such detail provides an insight to the kind of technical challenges that Amazon faces. Unsurprisingly, the company has resisted putting a timeframe on things, at least publicly, but its goals remain clear. “Putting the system into service will take some time, but one day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road,” the company insists.
One advantage for the firm is that it has the ears of the authorities. Two years ago it announced a partnership with the UK government to explore the steps needed to make the delivery of parcels by small drones a reality, allowing it to trial new methods of testing its delivery systems.
A cross-government team supported by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has provided it with permissions to explore three key innovations: beyond line of sight operations in rural and suburban areas; testing sensor performance to make sure the drones can identify and avoid obstacles; and flights where one person operates multiple highly-automated drones.
Amazon said the tie-up would also allow it and the British government to understand how drones can be used safely and reliably in the logistics industry, and identify what operating rules and safety regulations will be needed to help move the drone sector forward as a whole.
“Using small drones for the delivery of parcels will improve customer experience, create new jobs in a rapidly growing industry, and pioneer new sustainable delivery methods to meet future demand,” said Paul Misener, Amazon’s VP of global innovation policy and communications at the time.
“This announcement strengthens our partnership with the UK and brings Amazon closer to our goal of using drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to customers in the UK and elsewhere around the world.”
The involvement of the UK’s aviation safety regulator, the CAA, in the agreement certainly endorses the view that Amazon’s investment in drone usage has wider implications for the industry.
The CAA is particularly keen to explore the potential for
safe use of drones beyond line of sight, with the outcome of all the testing it has done helping to inform the development of future policy and regulation in this area.
Meanwhile, Amazon appears to remain committed to increasing the amount of resource dedicated to developing Prime Air. It has just opened a new office in Manchester and expanded its two other UK-based centres, creating 1,000 new research and development roles in the process.
As part of the move, it confirmed that some of these engineers will be working on its drone delivery project.
And if there was any further proof needed that Amazon is making headway, the company was recently named as one of 13 drone organisations to be selected for the SAFIR project, an initiative based around drone traffic management that will ultimately contribute to future EU regulatory processes around drones.
“Amazon supports the European Commission’s efforts to create a programme aimed at keeping the EU at the forefront of aviation and drone innovation,” said Gur Kimchi, VP of Amazon Prime Air.
“We’re focused on developing a safe, federated, and scalable airspace management model for autonomous systems, and we look forward to working with SESAR and EASA to make this a reality.”
Amazon has certainly acted early in readying itself for a future where it is as dependent on drones as it is the postal service. Technological and legislative progress will now determine how quickly its vision becomes a reality.