Retail giant Amazon has long been offering previews of its plans to make drone delivery services a reality. And while the technology has arguably been in place to make it happen for a while now, America’s FAA haven’t been too hospitable to the idea. In fact, in some quarters the Federal Aviation Authority has been accused of actively holding commercial drone delivery back.
The FAA recently brought in comprehensive legislation surrounding commercial drone use, so many businesses are now able to benefit from having an eye in the sky. Having said this, a number of the rules put in place, including restrictions over beyond line of site flying, make testing delivery services difficult if not impossible.
One of Amazon’s rivals, Flirtey, recently announced the first FAA-sanctioned residential drone delivery, delivering a 7-Eleven Slurpee to customers. But Flirtey had to jump through plenty of hoops and receive special dispensation from the FAA just to make that one flight happen.
Understandably, the powers that be at Amazon went looking for a more drone-friendly testing environment. And as a result, the company has decided to move Prime Air to the UK – at least for now.
Why has Amazon chosen the UK?
The UK authorities have similar rules governing commercial drone flights, but the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted Amazon special permission to test three areas of its delivery technology. These areas are flight beyond visual line of sight in both rural and suburban areas, obstacle avoidance, and operations which allow a single operator to control multiple “highly-automated” drones.
Amazon’s Paul Misener, Vice President of Global Innovation Policy and Communications, was quick to praise the UK as an environment that technology firms can work in.
“The UK is a leader in enabling drone innovation – we’ve been investing in Prime Air research and development here for quite some time,” he said. “This announcement strengthens our partnership with the UK and brings Amazon closer to our goal of using drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to customers in the UK and elsewhere around the world.”
“Using small drones for the delivery of parcels will improve customer experience, create new jobs in a rapidly growing industry, and pioneer new sustainable delivery methods to meet future demand,” said Misener. “The UK is charting a path forward for drone technology that will benefit consumers, industry, and society.”
From reading an official CAA statement, it’s clear that the UK government is keen to both encourage aerial innovation and continue to develop its own drone policy. The former is understandable given the country’s recent vote to leave the European Union, and the impact this is predicted to have on business growth and investor uncertainty.
“We want to enable the innovation that arises from the development of drone technology by safely integrating drones into the overall aviation system,” said Tim Johnson, CAA Policy Director. “These tests by Amazon will help inform our policy and future approach.”
The fears over exactly how realistic delivery drones are will remain, despite Amazon’s tests in the UK. On top of rising privacy concerns, a future of drones buzzing autonomously around the sky will also have safety implications for other aircraft and people minding their business on the ground. The problem of the last few yards still remains unvsolved. How exactly will delivery drones go perform their tasks in the face of potential interference and unexpected events?
In all likelihood, further testing will be part of an incremental process, and a reality of Amazon drones delivering packages freely is still some way off. But little by little, certain features will become more acceptable in the eyes of the wider public, such as ‘beyond line of sight flight’ and the notion that one pilot can control more than one vehicle remotely.