In December last year Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, made an announcement on the TV programme 60 Minutes that his company was working on a 30-minute delivery for online shoppers using drones, and that the service should be available by 2016. He said that this form of delivery would, “completely eliminate the lack of instant gratification currently lacking from shopping online.”
The statement was met with derision: from accusations of it being simply a cheap marketing gimmick, to an idea that was simply ludicrous and far-fetched. But the concept of drone delivery is actually right on our doorsteps and Bezos’ timeline for 2016 is pretty accurate. If it weren’t for the red tape and security clearances required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the technology not only exists but drone delivery is already being used commercially – albeit in a non regulated fashion. Amazon’s drone delivery service would be the first major commercial application of the technology. As one tech writer pointed out, “Amazon is not starting, but joining the drone delivery revolution.”
Drones are not new. The modern day drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) as they have always been referred to, was already being used by the military in the mid 20th century. Surveillance and reconnaissance were their primary function, especially by America during the Vietnam War. It is only recently that they have come onto the radar (so to speak) of the average citizen, thanks to the on-going leaks by Edward Snowdon. Drone surveillance, in the name of homeland security, has understandably unnerved many US citizens, which even prompted new York based artist/designer, Adam Harvey, to design a “Stealth Wear” clothing line, which includes an “anti-drone hoodie”: a hooded top that uses metalized material designed to counter thermal imaging used by drones.
However, fun loving South Africans have taken a different approach to drones, and used them to delivery beers at the Oppikoppi festival last year. With the help of an app and the GPS location via smart phones, revelers were able to receive their beers via a parachute drop from a drone. The drone was nicknamed “Manna” after the Old Testament-story of bread that fell from the sky. More recently, camera drones were being used to provide an aerial view of the media circus outside the courtroom on the first day of the Oscar Pistorius trial.
Back in America there is a scramble to use drones commercially. The Domino’s pizza chain are experimenting with the “Domicopter”, a drone that will deliver a hot pizza to your front door, while some restaurants are delivering plates of food to their tables as a novel tech gimmick. For Valentines Day this year an online florist, FlowerDeliveryExpress.com, started to deliver boxes of flowers using drones, but was ordered to stop by the FAA. However, a federal judge ruled that the FAA had no jurisdiction over small drone aircraft. The judge argued that if he accepted the FAA’s argument for regulating drones, “a flight in the air of a paper airplane or a toy balsa wood glider could subject the operator to FAA penalties”. This ruling could prove to be a watershed moment for commercial drone deliveries, as it begins to carve out a completely new niche for UAV’s as a regulated form of delivery that dovetails perfectly – and logically – with the rise and rise of online shopping.
Regulation is obviously crucial, which is why the Amazon timeline of 2016 is realistic. Even if delivery drones were given permission to only fly under a certain height, our skies would become the new “wild west” if no order were imposed.
Cynics of course all revert to the same question: “what if people simply shot the drones down?” and in South Africa this would probably be a real concern given the ingenuity that some of our criminals show. If criminals blow up ATM’s, then shooting down a drone would be like taking sweets from a child.
Discussions and legislation about air space, 3rd party risk, loss and insurance and criminal interception are all issues that need to be brought forward. My point is that drone delivery is not just a futuristic dream, or a concept with insurmountable problems. Sooner or later (I bet sooner) these operational issues will be resolved. The technology has been for half a century, and much like the Internet, which was first used for internal military purposes, so too will drones shift from military use to become the new mechanical workhorses of our digital era.
Get used to the idea now, because while the debate and derision is all about the commercial application of appeasing people’s desire for instant gratification for online shopping, the next wave will be far more useful, and important. Think instead of the benefits of delivering life saving drugs and medication to rural areas or disaster zones that are cut off from rescue teams. Suddenly, the concept of drone delivery doesn’t seem so superficial any more, but rather a 21st century concept we will have us all wondering why we didn’t start using drones earlier.
By: Dion Chang
Image credit: Amazon.com