ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Observations

Observations


Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Amazon’s Drone Delivery Plan Not Ready for Liftoff—Yet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, recently announced that his company is working on a fleet of autonomous drone aircraft that would deliver packages to your door. When pressed by interviewer Charlie Rose, Bezos said that he hoped the service would be available within “four or five years,” or not long after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establishes the rules of the skies for commercial drone aircraft in 2015.

Such a rollout is entirely plausible from a technological point of view. Drone aircraft are perfectly tailored to take make short-hop flights from, say, an Amazon distribution warehouse to a nearby suburban home, thereby solving the expensive “last mile” problem of Internet delivery. It’s much easier to program autonomous navigation into a small aircraft than it is to design a self-driving vehicle, as Google is trying to do—the car, after all, has to obey the rules of the road and contend with other drivers, whereas the drone can fly as the crow. And it’s far easier to build a fleet of small, autonomous drones than it is to engineer a space program from scratch, as Bezos has been attempting with his company Blue Origin.

But about those rules. Drone aircraft are complicated pieces of machinery, and the skies are somewhere where U.S. regulatory authorities abide by a philosophy that could best be described as “better safe than sorry.” Drones must not fly into each other, or other aircraft, or the sides of office buildings. They must also be secure against hackers who might try to override their controls and put them to nefarious ends. The University of Texas at Austin engineers Todd Humphreys and Kyle Wesson describe just a few of the challenges facing the FAA in their November story “Hacking Drones,” illustrating the potential danger of out of control drone aircraft with the real-world tale of a U.S. Navy MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter that stopped responding to commands and flew into the restricted airspace above Washington, D.C., in 2010. The cause? An unspecified “software issue.”

Amazon and ambitious companies like it will have to convince the FAA that its drone fleets will not pose unacceptable risks. But in the near term, that conversation is likely to be short. Amazon, after all, is building a fleet of autonomous delivery drones. The FAA’s preliminary list of “general requirements and assumptions” for drone use explicitly state that “autonomous use is not permitted” (PDF link).

Still, Bezos is known to focus on the long-term, and perhaps in a decade or more the FAA may concede that the risks posed by a fleet of autonomous delivery robots may not exceed our appetite for 30-minute delivery. As with any advanced technological system, one must balance potential risk against the reward. “An airplane can still be hijacked, pilots coerced, commu­nications links interrupted,” write Humphreys and Wesson. “Yet we continue to fly, not because we are unaware of the risks but because convenience trumps them. Drones will seek from us the same concession.”

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Tags: , ,





Rights & Permissions

Comments 17 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. jtdwyer 2:06 am 12/3/2013

    “It’s much easier to program autonomous navigation into a small aircraft than it is to design a self-driving vehicle, as Google is trying to do—the car, after all, has to obey the rules of the road and contend with other drivers, whereas the drone can fly as the crow.”

    This idea is contradicted in the subsequent paragraph, which states that “Drones must not fly into each other, or other aircraft, or the sides of office buildings.”
    Crows also obey the rules of the sky – which makes programming a drone not only as complicated as an autonomous car, but more so – since it travels in three dimensions rather than two!

    Link to this
  2. 2. jrvz 8:01 am 12/3/2013

    jtdwyer you have hit the nail squarely on the head. Unregulated access to the air has the potential of disaster. You only have to think of the damage a bird strike can do to an airliner!

    Link to this
  3. 3. MayerVietoris 9:19 am 12/3/2013

    jtdwyer, you may note that autonomous cars ‘must not [drive] into each other, or other [vehicles] or the sides of office buildings’, and when trying to do so have only two dimensions in which they can manoeuvere. They also need route-planning algorithms to find the most efficient routes and are rather more likely to run into squishy, expensive things like people.

    jrvz, there is no suggestion of unregulated access to the air. FAA cooperation is the basis of this new technology. In comparison to making an autonomous car respond to the erratic behaviour of human drivers, making a drone avoid airliners is trivial.

    I’m not saying this idea is without its issues, but the article seems fine to me.

    Link to this
  4. 4. BillR 9:20 am 12/3/2013

    What happens to the package if you happen not to be at home when it is delivered? Will we need to build a protected delivery site at our home to deter opportunists from getting a random free surprise package?

    Also, what security is there from people trying to score a new i-Pad with a pellet gun? I would prefer to wait for FedEx, UPS or USPS to bring it to me or leave it in my mail box.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:30 am 12/3/2013

    @jtdwyer
    You got it. My next thought is that such programming system will be complex and IP-protected. And some tech giant will want monopoly on autonomous drones, cars, farm machines etc. So Amazon will never get it.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:39 am 12/3/2013

    @MayerVietoris
    “In comparison to making an autonomous car respond to the erratic behaviour of human drivers, making a drone”…

    A delivery drone needs to respond to human behavior, too. Do you want to dodge Amazon purchases trying to slam into your forehead?

    Another nice thought: a system expecting millions of deliveries would need incredible accuracy and coping with law of big numbers. Would a drone be able to dodge a stray child balloon, which startled a flock of birds, next to two lorries driving by and another drone flying from the side? Such unlikely events are bound to happen every day.

    Link to this
  7. 7. jtdwyer 3:39 pm 12/3/2013

    Good points, all! I had to wonder also how the neighborhood dogs would respond? A pooch could do a lot of damage to a little drone…

    Link to this
  8. 8. 13inches 5:42 pm 12/3/2013

    I have been flying model RC Quadcopters (Drones) for a couple of years. Crashes happen often for many known and unknown reasons. All RC Quadcopter fliers wind up becoming experts at repairing their machines after hard crashes damage props and motors and frames. Jeff Bezos’ idea to fill the skies with Amazon delivery drones might eventually be plausible, but there are many many safety issues and technical problems to be solved before drone delivery becomes commonplace. A ten pound drone carrying a five pound Amazon package could accidentally KILL a person if it him in the head after falling from 500 feet in the air.

    Link to this
  9. 9. SigmaEyes 5:43 pm 12/3/2013

    I imagine the FAA rules will create ceiling heights for such deliveries – below a certain height to avoid other drones or aircraft, but above the height of people (vertical take off and landing excepted).

    But think for a minute of a urban environment from ten feet above the ground to twenty feet high. There are thin, difficult to detect wires for high voltage, household electric, cable, phone, etc. Also these have to operate in the darkness of winter hours (it gets dark by 4 pm on the East Coast). So street lights come in every imaginable configuration, as to sign posts, and windows. Just imagine an open window that offers no signal reflection for guidance system sensors.

    So to answer the issue of theft that was raised in a comment above, just leave your window open; amazon sends an alert to your cell phone after delivery; and you use your phone to close your window like that TV advertisement where the man turns off the home faucet remotely after finding out the kids were in the house.

    I guess we could have the drones send a signal to your cell to open the window, and close it afterward.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Agostini 7:05 pm 12/3/2013

    Amazon drone is very interesting. But I wonder how is the beyond-insurance risk management strategy for these drones?

    Link to this
  11. 11. cccampbell 7:41 pm 12/3/2013

    Personally I don’t think that they are actually planning to do anything with drones. The whole thing smacks of a publicity stunt to get their name all over the media the day before “Cyber Shopping Monday”! And, of course, the media bought into it, hook, line, and sucker.

    Couldn’t possibly be that they made some sort of advertising deal with CBS in order to get that 60 Minutes spot, could it? Nah, they would never do anything like that. Sorry I even brought it up.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:56 am 12/4/2013

    @cccampbell
    I didn’t hear about “Cyber Shopping Monday”, probably it is U.S. ad campaign, but indeed SciAm is likely to buy into any stunt related to science.

    Do you think there may be a drone bubble, self-propelled machines or smart machines bubble? Like the internet bubble in 2000′s, when every company said it want to do something with internet?

    Link to this
  13. 13. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:10 am 12/4/2013

    @SigmaEyes
    Even worse – birds. Airplanes and military drones operate above flying height of most birds. Delivery drones (and most drones envisioned for everyday tasks) would fly low.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Wayne Williamson 7:29 pm 12/4/2013

    This is cool, but I would imagine a swarm lifting from a centrally parked truck.
    I have no idea how they would deal with the friggen bottle water the wife gets delivered to the house;-)

    Link to this
  15. 15. cccampbell 7:39 pm 12/4/2013

    Jerzy,

    “Black Friday”, the day after Thanksgiving, is supposed to be the biggest shopping day in the US, in retail stores. Recently we have added “Shop Local Saturday”, a national promotion to support local, non-chain stores, and “Cyber Monday”, devoted to shopping online.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyber_Monday

    I just find it interesting that America’s largest online store, Amazon, managed to get a 15 minute promo on Sunday night on one of the most popular US T.V. shows, just before Cyber Monday.

    I have difficulty believing in coincidences when it comes to this kind of thing.

    Link to this
  16. 16. denke42 7:40 pm 12/4/2013

    And no one here has even mentioned the privacy issues of a drone with sensors capable of three-dimensional navigation flying at treetop level over backyards, past second-floor bedrooms or businesses with proprietary information visible. Think of the privacy freakouts provoked by Google Street View. Most people won’t trust Jeff Bezos not to peek.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:48 am 12/6/2013

    Just a publicity stunt, then.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Holiday Sale

Black Friday/Cyber Monday Blow-Out Sale

Enter code:
HOLIDAY 2014
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >

X

Email this Article

X