December 16, 2013
Something miraculous happened when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced plans to deliver packages directly to customers via unmanned aircraft. For a moment, people stopped talking about drones as killing machines and focused on the potential beneficial uses of autonomous vehicles.
It was a brief, but valued respite for an industry that has been battling the public's perceptions of unmanned aircraft as either robotic killers of innocent civilians or secretive invaders of individual privacy. Of course, if you are up to no good, they may be. But unmanned aircraft are much more than faceless, lethal drones, as Bezos so deftly demonstrated.
The skeptical technical press, Aviation Week included, was quick to point out the technology and regulatory requisites to make Bezos's vision a reality do not exist and are unlikely to by Amazon's hoped-for 2015 launch date. But industry insiders were less quick to dismiss the plan as pure hype. It all depends on how flexible the FAA is prepared to be—and how much the public wants it to be.
Going by the rules, the type of small UAV Amazon would use will be restricted to flying in daylight, staying below 400 ft. and within line-of-sight of its operator—not enough to allow packages to be delivered anywhere inside a 10-mi. radius within 30 min of a customer placing an order, Bezos's goal. Going by business as usual, it could take the FAA several years to allow operations beyond line-of-sight, which will require the UAV to navigate itself, avoiding buildings, trees, pedestrians—and other flying objects.
But the technology to do just that could be ready much sooner. Vision-based navigation systems using cellphone cameras and a technique called optical flow to detect and avoid obstacles are becoming commercially available. Communicating via satellite might always be a stretch for micro-UAVs, but a system using cellphone or similar networks could keep the operator in the loop as the vehicle drops below the horizon to deliver its payload.
Success could depend on whether Amazon is prepared to take on the task, and cost, of developing and fielding an end-to-end system, not just the vehicles but the infrastructure for doorstep delivery by air—and whether the FAA could ever be flexible enough to allow such a system to be deployed before every “i” is dotted and “t” is crossed on the regulations.
Amazon has the resources—it could even turn the infrastructure into a business like its web services—and it has the customer constituency to influence the FAA. Let's hope Bezos is serious about taking the lead in exploiting the beneficial uses of unmanned aircraft, and not just looking for a quick PR win. Such novel uses of unmanned aircraft—and many not yet envisioned—can happen. And they should happen, sooner rather than later.