If the latest announcements from Amazon and Google are to be believed, the technology is ready for automated drone deliveries to start as early as 2017. So what's the hold up? Flight test videos appear to show that technical issues have been resolved. Amazon claim that their Prime Air service will be able to deliver packages under 5 pounds in 30 minutes, while Google's Project Wing has resulted in what appear to be small delivery gliders, along with an entire air traffic control system to watch over them.
The bottom line is this: Drones are ready, but there are unresolved issues regarding what industry experts have termed 'The last 50 feet' - the delivery procedure. By this I don't mean the physical act of delivering the package - Google's Project Wing simply lowers it down on a tether whilst Amazon's Prime Air drones have to land to release it. Implied by 'the last 50 feet' are all the unforeseen things which could happen during the crucial moments of delivery...
Delivery drones will typically take off from bespoke facilities designed especially for their use. It's when drones come into contact with humans, pets and unfamiliar surroundings that things could start to go wrong. Amazon Prime drones may struggle to find a safe place to land, Google's drone may get some unwanted attention from your trigger-happy neighbour.
The persistence of these 'last 50 feet' issues goes a long way to explain why flight demos have so far been in pretty remote locations. Google chose the Australian outback for their marketing video, whilst Amazon chose a quiet suburban setting for theirs. The fact that people are the main barrier to drone deliveries will be seen in the deployment of the technology. It's likely that quiet suburbs and remote locations will be amongst the first to be serviced. Coordinating aerial deliveries in busy cities is a daunting task. In a weird reversal of the norm, drone deliveries will first be available in the suburbs, before moving into cities once the technology has been perfected and, more importantly, the people have been educated.
As international technology giants, Google and Amazon are pretty used to getting their own way, and generally know the consequences of an action before it's taken. But interference with their delivery drones is one thing which will be incredibly difficult to police. In countries such as America where gun ownership is the norm, how long will it be before shooting down drones becomes a sport? How many drones will go MIA? Children, pets and even adults will inevitably come into contact with these drones - whether through curiosity or stupidity - how can a whole bunch of Enrique Iglesias situations be avoided?
Keeping drones as high as possible for as long as possible during flight should keep them out of reach of those with bad intentions. But Amazon and Google probably have to accept that there will be interference at some stage. The key is to make drones which are as safe as possible when the inevitable happens. Alternatively, the homes need to be better set up for drone deliveries. Whether this is through special landing pads, down-the-chimney parcels or 10 ft high mailboxes.
When the FAA announced compulsory registration for recreational drone owners last month, a similar system for commercial drone use was delayed. It's still working out the rules for drone deliveries, and will expect to see the results of extensive testing - which has by all accounts been going on for around three years now - before allowing pilot projects to get up and running.
The usual tech-adoption template (thriving cities outwards into more rural areas) will have to be turned on its head, as regulatory bodies continue to struggle with the rapid advancements in the drone industry. Once proved as a safe and reliable delivery method, bodies such as the FAA will be more inclined to allow expansion into urban areas.
How to monitor a sky full of drones heading off in all different directions is a challenge which faces the whole industry. Autonomous delivery vehicles need to be tracked and controllable to some extent.
Google and Amazon are both working with NASA and the FAA to come up with an automatic air traffic control system, which will require commercial drone operators to file flights plans for all journeys. The Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) will close off airspace between 200 and 500 feet for commercial drones, along with an air traffic management system. UTM is a pretty long-term project though, with nothing concrete expected before 2019. Google and Amazon surely would like to fly sooner than that.
To an extent the answer may come in object avoidance technology, as demo'd at last week's CES conference. Having said this, delivery drones which can avoid collisions are still open to interference.