Parcels Might Fly… But So Might Pigs

How likely is it that Amazon’s drone helicopters will really be dropping your parcel at your door anytime soon? Amazon boss Jeff Bezos seems pretty confident. He’s talking about entering Amazon’s Prime Air 30-minute drone service into operation in 2015, providing Amazon can get it past the USA’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).

It seems the stuff of pure science fiction, but I’ve seen a film of a package in a typical Amazon Distribution Centre being automatically sorted, placed into a container pretty much like a plastic lunchbox, and then placed on a conveyor leading to an Amazon ‘Octocopter’. The small automated helicopter takes off with its load and lands it outside the door of a house, where a chuffed-looking customer opens the door and picks up his parcel. It’s pretty convincing.

ParcelHero partner DHL is also testing bright yellow Paketcopters at its Bonn HQ, so it’s not just one company getting a little ahead of itself.

But before you start staring into the skies in expectation of your eagerly awaited delivery, I have to tell you there are some problems that may keep Mr Bezos’ plans firmly on the ground. The FAA ruled in June that such ‘model aircraft’, as it defines them, cannot be used to deliver commercial packages. So it looks like Amazon is grounded for now. DHL is also being very cautious over promising any practical introduction of its promising Paketcopters.

In the UK the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) only allows the use of such drones for hobby purposes (yes, you can buy them from Amazon!) and even then certainly not in a built-up area without express permission. And there’s one more problem: I’ll grant you that the technology involved in dropping a package down into your garden is pretty smart; but what happens then? The drone that can ring your doorbell or leave your package with that nice retired school teacher next door, now that’s technology I would like to see.

Rest assured, everyone here at ParcelHero.com is always excited by new advances in our industry. When the legal and technological hurdles are finally overcome, we’ll be working enthusiastically with our partners to ensure our customers benefit from every advance in technology. But right now I’d keep an eye out of the front window for your next parcel, not your skylight.

Update: July 15, 2014

Does Friday’s Guardian newspaper story, announcing that Amazon is stoking up the pressure on the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), mean it’s any more likely that Amazon Drones will be in service in the next couple of years? I certainly wouldn’t be betting the farm on it anytime soon. Amazon’s Head of Public Policy, Paul Misener, has been lobbying the FAA to let it test its drones outdoors under similar conditions to those that hobbyists flying model aircraft are already allowed operate under in the US. Even if it is given permission, however, that still means all flights must be under direct line of site control.

Interestingly, it’s in the UK that those in charge of our airspace seem closest to conceding that ‘sometime in the future’ there will be automatic drones delivering our parcels. “The line of sight provision could go away some time in the future when we see a device able to make decisions about avoiding whatever objects are out there,” a Civil Aviation Authority spokesman told The Guardian newspaper recently. “They would also have to avoid other aerial obstacles, of course.” Would-be operators would have to demonstrate the potential safety of their devices to the CAA to win permission.

Note the words ‘some time in the future’. One day such drones may well be delivering parcels; and no doubt booked through ParcelHero for the best price and service. But anytime soon?  As I say, I wouldn’t be betting the farm on it… not even a farm of flying pigs.

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