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Drone delivery – what’s holding it back?
The humble courier’s days are numbered. A number of big companies are planning on making deliveries by drone, while others are readying alternative autonomous vehicles to do the same job. First up is Google. It just announced its Project Wing fleet of delivery drones could be ready to launch in 2017, which is in a little over a year’s time. But as in the case of self-driving cars, it’s not the technology that’s holding it up, but the regulations.
Alphabet, the new holding company for Google, is in talks with the Federal Aviation Administration and other stakeholders about setting up an air traffic control system for drones. According to David Vos, the leader for Project Wing, this would use cellular and internet technology to coordinate unmanned aerial vehicle flights at altitudes under 500 feet.
Indeed, Vos was addressing an audience at an air traffic control convention near Washington when he made the announcement. “Our goal is to have commercial business up and running in 2017,” he said.
“Goal” being the key word.
That’s because all drone deliveries will stay grounded until the FAA (Federal Aviations Authority) publishes final rules for commercial drone operations. While they’re expected early next year, they could throw a spanner in the works and cause firms to rethink their plans. For proof, just look at the amount of trouble consumer drones have got into both here and in the UK. The FAA’s regulations are likely to be tighter than a drum.
However, Vos is optimistic. “We’re pretty much on a campaign here,” he said, “working with the FAA, working with the small UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] community and the aviation community at large, to move things along.”
Project Wing’s prototype drones are about five feet wide and two and a half meters tall. They look a lot like the quad-copters you can buy in the shops, though Google has said it will unveil new models and designs in future. In a promo video released last month, Google said the drones will be able to cover five miles in five minutes.
Google isn’t the only firm backing drone delivery. Amazon is also getting involved with Amazon Prime Air. This promises to deliver packages to customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less, and would track the customers’ location using their smartphones. But it too is awaiting the regulatory go-ahead.
Back in July, Amazon proposed a separate airspace zone solely for commercial drone flights. The zone would be between 200 and 400 feet, with air traffic control handled by an automated computer system.
Amazon claims this would let drones fly unhindered and without endangering civilian or military planes. Anything below 200 feet would then be for low-speed localised drone traffic, like surveying, filming and hobby drones. The 400-500 feet area above the commercial drone flying space would be left empty as a buffer zone to safeguard against full-size aircraft flying above 500 feet.
Alibaba, China’s biggest internet retailer, has also tested deliveries by drone to around 450 customers. Earlier this year, the firm trialled the drones over three days, to locations within a one-hour flight of its distribution centres in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Courier services UPS and DHL have also trialled drone delivery alternatives.
Robot couriers won’t just take to the skies, however. This week, the co-founders of internet telephony service Skype unveiled an autonomous driving robot that can carry groceries and other packages. Named Starship, it only travels at 4mph (i.e. walking pace) but can carry up to 20 lbs of goods. Its compartment stays locked until it reaches its destination and the customer unlocks it using an app on their smartphone. And if it encounters a particularly tricky junction, or traffic gets too hectic, a human operator can step in and take control remotely.
For something a little more speedy, there’s the Transwheels, a robotic biker gang that could weave between Greyhounds and big rigs to bring you your package. Each Transwheel is an autonomous unicycle that navigates the highways using an array of built-in cameras. Its two arms clutch its precious cargo, keeping it safe. They can even combine forces like Transformers to carry bigger packages.
Transporting packages is all well and good, but what about us? Shouldn’t we be using all this technology to aid our own travels? Joby Aviation aims to do just that, with its fleet of automated drone taxis looking to shuttle passengers around in place of short-haul flights. Able to travel 200 miles in an hour, it would certainly be quicker than taking a cab. Like the courier drones, it has plenty of hurdles to overcome, the main ones being regulation and infrastructure (to make it viable, more helipads would need to be built).
But who knows, if the regulators can work things out with these companies, our skies could soon be filled with drones ferrying around people’s groceries, and maybe even the people themselves.