Why Amazon’s plan to deliver goods by drones is a fairy tale


A remote-controlled drone (unmanned aerial vehicle). AFP

In a segment in the US television show 60 minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that his company intends to start delivering certain packages by use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the near future.

This he promised would allow someone to purchase an item online and have it delivered to your doorstep or helipad in 30 minutes.

His announcement ignited debate on UAVs which have had an unfortunate bad reputation in the recent past due to assassinations in muslim countries and privacy concerns.

It also highlighted just how far UAVs have progressed. First conceived in past wars as a way of reducing human pilot casualties, they have progressed from primitive early prototypes to versatile machines.

This is due to improvement in communication technology, GPS and powerful computers.

As the name UAV suggests, there is no human pilot on board. However, these planes vary widely in size and ability from tiny remote controlled planes that must remain within line of sight of the pilot to the Reaper drone that weighs over two tonnes and has advanced autopilot systems and some degree of artificial intelligence to free human beings from the most tedious routine tasks.

There are a number of hurdles to be overcome before American receive their first package by drone. First, the Federal Aviation Administration currently does not allow most UAVs to be used for commercial operations or to share airspace with conventional aircraft.

While this will undoubtedly change in the future, operators of UAVs will have to prove that they have adequately robust command and control data links and sense and avoid systems.

Small drones of the kind Amazon intends to use are susceptible to weather. They also tend to get more accidents than their larger cousins.

All of which would add costs replacing damaged drones and their payload. People will undoubtedly try to shoot them down or simply steal them once they have delivered their packages.

Finally, it’s not clear whether it’s financially viable. The very generation of lift is costly in terms of energy. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the drones to be used are very light and they will fly line of sight.

However, the logistics firms such as UPS have been in the business for a very long time and can no doubt deliver packages far cheaper than drones ever will.

Should the FAA rule that the drones need pilots as backup, the qualifications are as rigorous as normal pilots. On the other hand to be a truck driver, you only need to be above 18 and have a drivers licence.

The general consensus then is that this plan is feasible but impractical. We are more likely to see self driving trucks before the drones.

All this may be irrelevant. Some have speculated that this was just a cynical ploy by Mr Bezos to publicise his company. In which case he’s succeeded beyond his wildest expectations getting column inches even in Africa. In that case, well played sir. Well played.

Dr Ondieki is a pilot with an international airline