It seems likely that the stringent safety requirements recognized by Amazon itself will put severe limits on delivery drones’ commercial viability.
Last week, Amazon announced a partnership with the UK Government to explore how to enable the delivery of parcels by small drones. Crucially, the UK has agreed to let Amazon test “beyond line of sight operations” in rural and suburban areas (a mode of operation that isn’t yet allowed in the US), as well as sensor performance to make sure the drones can identify and avoid obstacles, and flights where one person operates multiple highly-automated drones.
The UK Government sees the Amazon trial as an opportunity to help it identify the operating rules and safety regulations needed to help move the drone industry forward. But Amazon has already proposed that drones operating beyond line of sight will need to be equipped with some advanced and demanding technologies: geospatial data for safe separation from known hazards; online flight planning and management; a reliable internet connection, collaborative vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) sense-and-avoid (SAA) systems, and non-collaborative sensor-based sense-and-avoid systems. These capabilities are further detailed in the “Best class” shown in the table below, drawn up by Amazon.
For the rest of this decade at least, Amazon and its rivals will probably need to rely on human controllers far more than they would like. And the trials now kicking off in the UK may run and run.
A knowledgeable article that reveals the complexity – and cost – of implementing autonomous delivery. The article goes on to detail the five connectivity challenges that Amazon must surmount. Implicit in this is that the cost and complexity of equipping and maintaining this capability will put it will out of reach of many. Perhaps the most telling line is this:
Although the enabling connectivity technologies for such drones exist today, they will eat into the limited battery power that is available for actually flying the drone. Unless battery technology makes some major leaps forward, delivery drones may be limited to journeys of just a few miles, implying Amazon will need a vast network of drone delivery stations.