In 2017 retail giant Amazon announced plans to introduce a new delivery service into its business. Prime Air is designed to transport packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using “unmanned aerial vehicles”, or drones. The new drone delivery system is still in development and Amazon has been making improvements to the hardware. Amazon recently received a patent for a delivery drone that can respond to human gestures. According to Amazon, the concept is part of the company’s goal to develop a fleet of unmanned aerial delivery vehicles. According to the Los Angeles Times, the patent may help Amazon grapple with how flying robots might interact with human bystanders and customers waiting on their doorsteps. It could also help drones find delivery customers in crowded neighborhoods or where the address is not clear. Depending on a person’s gestures — a welcoming thumbs-up, shouting or frantic arm waving — the drone can adjust its behavior, according to the patent. As described in the patent, the machine could release the package it’s carrying, change its flight path to avoid crashing, ask humans a question or abort the delivery.
Getting Ready to Launch
Amazon delivered its first package by drone a little over two years ago, in December 2016 under the name Amazon Air. It shipped an Amazon Fire TV and some popcorn to Cambridge, England, in just 13 minutes according to the Washington Post. Amazon is no stranger to ambitious ideas. Earlier this year, the company was granted a patent for a smart mirror that could show how shoppers would look in different clothing purchases. Using a combination of cameras and projectors, the mirror can theoretically map your body and let you “try on” the clothes, according to CNN. At the beginning of 2017, Amazon was even awarded a patent for drone “bee-hive” towers (http://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-has-applied-to-patent-a-beehive-like-drone-tower-2017-6) that would become the base of delivery drones. Instead of returning to a truck, these drones would operate without human assistance. Amazon describes the tower concept as a “multilevel fulfillment center for unmanned aerial vehicles.”
It’s likely that the “drone tower” would be particularly useful to Amazon in densely populated areas. However, several regulatory hurdles would have to be overcome before Amazon could start building the towers, should it decide to push ahead with this idea. For example, several large cities (such as Washington, D.C.) effectively maintain no-fly zones, making potential drone flights legally contentious.
Will This Idea Take Off?
While this effort is interesting and could transform the way we shop for and receive goods, there are several potential issues. Drone deliveries may not be significantly cheaper than existing methods, when one considers how many more goods can be carried on a conventional delivery truck. These deliveries may be best suited for small or light objects delivered to more remote areas, where vehicles may not be able to reach or where ground delivery is slower due to low population density. It may also be too risky to order large or heavy objects this way – imagine the horror of ordering a 75-inch TV only to witness it plummet to the Earth’s surface. Large and heavy objects may not be able to ordered via drone, or they may be prohibitively expensive to deliver in this way. Rampant package theft in many areas may mean that thieves wouldn’t just steal the package, they could steal the drones, too (and an Amazon drone presents an even easier way for thieves to watch what house is about to receive a delivery).