Amazon says it will soon be delivering orders by drone. But will commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles take off? Or is the idea just pie in the sky? Our experts tell us why the business breakthrough is inevitable.
“I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not.” These words were spoken late last year by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos during a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes show about the giant online retailer’s plans for the future. His defensiveness was understandable. Bezos had just led a reporter into a room full of Amazon-branded, prototype ‘octocopter’ drones. Models like these, he claimed to 13 million prime-time viewers in the US, would soon be dropping off purchases on customers’ doorsteps just 30 minutes after they were ordered. All Amazon needed, he reckoned, was America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to usher in regulations for this to become a reality – something he anticipated happening, perhaps, as early as 2015.
Reactions to what quickly became an instant global news story were mixed. The more fanciful pictured a sky dotted with rotary-powered craft carrying consumer goods over cities distinctly less traffic-congested. The more cynical pointed out that Bezos’s claim had effectively given Amazon millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity the night before Cyber Monday [the Monday after Thanksgiving in the US] – the biggest online shopping day of the year – not to mention generating a further unit-shifting wave of buzz online over subsequent days.
The response of the healthily incredulous majority, though, was simply, “Really?” Surely, in an age of feverish concerns over security and privacy, the legal and ethical hurdles remain insurmountable, they said. And what of the technology issues? Battery-life problems alone – still a major glitch in the information revolution – would surely make Bezos’s dream unfeasible. Even the technologically oblivious could gaze out of windows, take note of all the birds, lampposts and power-lines, and identify a sizeable flaw in the plan.
But leaving aside the plausibility of Bezos’s specific claims, it would seem that drones will be playing a major role in our personal and professional lives sooner than many expect. In fact, they’ve been around much longer than we think. The prototype of the US military’s MQ-9 Reapers, seen soaring over tribal areas of Pakistan or Afghanistan today, was a monoplane made of wood and tin, designed to be packed with explosives and steered into Zeppelins as they bombed Britain in 1916. Their military deployment, for surveillance and targeting, has hogged the drone narrative ever since, and will no doubt continue to be a major driver in the development of larger drones – David Cameron and François Hollande announced an Anglo-French project to build state-of-the-art predator drones earlier this year.
Their use in combat remains highly controversial – one of the insiders contributing to this article advised us that ‘drone’ is a taboo word in the industry, due to the negative connotations that have arisen — but there are also plenty of potential civic uses for what insiders prefer to call UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), a term we’ll stick to deferentially from here.
EU regulators are exploring their role in helping them police the Common Agricultural Policy, for example, while in Australia the New South Wales government is considering using them to spot sharks in popular swimming or surfing areas. And Rolls-Royce has unveiled a project to design unmanned cargo ships that would be greener, cleaner and less costly than giant ocean freighters. Most significantly, for those suspicious of state snooping in the post-Prism-scandal era, FBI director Robert Mueller conceded late last year that UAVs are already being used over US soil for surveillance purposes.
Search-and-rescue missions, tackling forest fires and border patrols are other areas of obvious potential, while it doesn’t need a huge leap of imagination to consider how a UAV could assess the safety of flying through a volcanic ash-cloud – probably a lot quicker than most of us can say “Eyjafjallajökull” [the Icelandic volcano which erupted in 2010]. And anyone who has seen hit movie The Bourne Legacy will surmise that it’s only a matter of time before predator UAVs are used for police manhunts, too
But what of these vehicles being used in a commercial context? Nigel King is director of QuestUAV, a UK-based manufacturer of UAVs. The company works closely with chartered land surveyors and geospatial engineers Coastway, airline software business SkyEye and a collection of research organisations. “Our clients use our UAVs to conduct detailed land, forestry, peatland and agricultural surveys that would otherwise be out of their financial reach,” he says. “They’ve also been used for advanced research into climate change in Antarctica, Greenland and Svalbard [in Norway], none of which could be done without the technology.”
Meanwhile, Michael Perry of DJI – a global enterprise that describes itself as a creative technologies company – says the sky is the limit when it comes to how its advanced range of UAV products can be deployed to commercial advantage. “We’re constantly seeing new and innovative uses,” he says. “Right now, our products are being used by archaeologists to survey sites they couldn’t previously access, real estate developers to get a new angle on properties for sale, construction crews to monitor sites safely and efficiently, as well as journalists and film-makers to capture stories from an entirely new perspective.”
All such deployments can be carried out with impunity in the UK, where laws governing UAVs are relatively generous towards the technology – although there are caveats. “At the moment, only smaller, lighter classes of craft can be used in normal airspace,” says Richard Taylor from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). “Anything over 20kg is restricted to certain areas, but most of the devices being used commercially are between one and five kilograms.” So besides these criteria, it’s carte blanche for both hobbyists and early- adopting entrepreneurs? “Not quite. They have to be used outside a certain proximity to people, buildings, vehicles and so on, and – this is the key rule – they cannot be used outside the operator’s visual line of sight. Our definition of that is 400 metres horizontally and 500ft vertically.”
There are several UK businesses working with the CAA to ensure their uses of UAVs comply with current legislation – such as 3D visualisation firm Vizworx of Bangor, north Wales, which uses a ‘hexacopter’ to answer the growing demand for aerial footage in planning, environmental and tourism projects. And in the UK in late February it was announced that research into the use of drones in civil aviation was among one of seven projects to have earned £30m of government funding in a move to boost the aerospace sector. While it is still at an early regulatory stage, the project – run by BAE Systems – has tantalisingly set out its intention to investigate “unmanned aviation in the civil market”.
Meanwhile in the US, the FAA is redrafting its own regulations, but any commercial use of unmanned aircraft in civil airspace whatsoever seems unlikely to be permitted there until, as mentioned by Bezos, at least 2015 – much to the chagrin of US brewery Lakemaid, which last winter used a UAV to deliver beer to fishermen out on a frozen Minnesota lake, only to receive a slap on the wrist for its seemingly kindly efforts. Lakemaid went on to post a petition on the White House website, pleading for a special permit
Barriers to progress
Making the most of an FAA clause which allows farmers to operate UAVs on their own property are pioneers such as Idaho-based Robert Blair, who uses a home-made UAV to monitor his 1,500 acres of wheat, peas, barley and alfalfa, and DRNK Wines in California, whose once-serene pinot noir vineyards now hum with the presence of airborne 3DR Iris vehicles monitoring the rate at which vines in different sections of the vineyard are ripening.
Gradual deregulation, in tandem with UAVs’ growing sophistication and commercial potential, seems inevitable the world over, but there are stumbling blocks. Aside from privacy, the major one is safety, as became apparent in dramatic circumstances in March last year, when a commercial airliner flying over a New York neighbourhood came within 200ft of a UAV that was much too small to appear on the radar. As one retired pilot put it that evening on national radio: “When they suck one of those drones into the engine of an airplane, then it’ll get everybody’s attention.” Legislators will also have to deal with wilfully mendacious uses: the same freedom from risk that unmanned aircraft grant the attacker in military scenarios is also afforded to the narcotics smuggler, saboteur or terrorist.
Manufacturers must be confident that laws will be relaxed, given how much R&D resource they are investing on their products’ commercial potential. The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Elite, for example, offers stabilisation technology (and therefore less juddery film footage) for a cool £280. For just £20 more, the Blade 350 QX offers a simple version of the sensor-assisted collision avoidance that will need to be advanced considerably before any delivery-based applications are rolled out.
For a whopping £15,000, consumers get a senseFly eBee – which features a professional aerial mapping device with a range of 10 sq km per charge, a top speed of 57km/h and software that constructs topographical models based on imagery from its 16-megapixel camera. Toy, or vital tool for tomorrow’s architects and construction engineers? Either way, it comes in a briefcase. “We’ve already launched advanced sensors that make the invisible visible, such as IR and thermal imaging,” says King on QuestUAV’s pursuit of the technological cutting edge. “Further down the line, we’re working on hyperspectral and lidar imaging.”
So where does all this leave Bezos’s outlandish delivery claim? Should Luddite Phil Collins fans who have purchased one of his CDs on Amazon at 5.30pm expect, literally, to feel it coming in the air tonight? Oh Lord, no! Not for now, at least, according to William Higham of strategic consultancy Next Big Thing. “Amazon sells 25m products a day,” he points out. “Even if we say 90 per cent of those are digital, 2.5m individual drone deliveries a day would simply be too expensive to do. There’s more of an immediate potential, I think, for things that need to be delivered urgently like transplant organs, or provisions that need to be delivered to a remote or dangerous area. Anywhere it’s too expensive or dangerous to send a person.
Boost for manufacturing
Dan Lewis, chief executive of Future Energy Strategies, IoD adviser and a two-year attendee of the UK Space Plane Regulation Workshop, is less sceptical. “The Amazon claim was plausible,” he says, “especially in a country like Britain where we all live close together. Address UAVs’ range, the weight they can carry, power-density ratios and recharging times. Then apply a lot more of the crash-avoidance technology being developed for cars, including a new mapping of airspace, and why not?”
Lewis even suggests a shift in global production and consumer culture might be in the making. “In the past, the future was all about manufacturing moving to China and nothing being done at home,” he says. “Now, we’re looking at the return of artisanship – a lot of experts have a vision of us in family-owned manufacturing businesses at home in the near future – and UAV technology could really facilitate this, moving us from mass manufacturing to manufacturing on demand.”
But both Higham and Lewis agree that UAVs will have an immeasurable impact on our personal and working lives. “We’re at a stage now where company leaders need to focus on disruptive technology models,” Higham says. “It’s foolish to dismiss anything out of hand. Futurists have been talking about robotics for years – finally, this is an example of a practical use for it.”
Higham also points to two factors that make our eventual embracing of UAVs all the more inevitable: “Firstly,” he says, “we’re more trusting of autonomous machines than ever before – bins tweeting you when they’re full and so on. Life is so complicated, and we’re craving things that simplify our lives.” The second factor he cites concerns how crowded urban roads have become. Construction always goes vertical when overcrowding on the ground demands it; skyscraper greenhouses, some believe, could send agriculture the same way in the not-too-distant future.
Could transport one day take the same vertiginous initiative? “Horizontally, there is no room for expansion,” says Higham. “On the contrary, when you look at the congestion charges and so on, authorities are constantly trying to take people off the road – so, to quote a popular song lyric, ‘the only way is up’.”
So what does all this mean for the future? Can we expect a Blade Runner-esque tomorrow in which road maps need to be three-dimensional? Will hedge-squatting paparazzi be able to brush off the mud, thorns and leaves from their clothes and go home to conduct their invasive craft from there? Might some crafty journalist using illicit news-gathering techniques swat a fly one day in 2025, hear it crunch instead of making a splat and realise they’ve been rumbled – as well as sabotaged government espionage technology? Will planes be piloted by (hopefully) benign equivalents of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey?
There are many legal and technical obstacles to hurdle but, as it does with any disruptive technology, the world will surely surmount them – at its own pace.
It has to, given how remarkably useful UAVs are becoming, and how quickly their functionality is developing. There was a time when the noun ‘drone’ described the non-stinging male bee in a colony. How remarkably ironic that, a few years from now – assuming the word’s taboo factor is overwhelmed by common usage – it could refer to one of the most potent, game-changing innovations of our times.
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