Amazon’s announcement that its developing flying drones for its Prime Air service caused huge excitement earlier this week, even if the idea is somewhat impossible to put into practice at the moment. Nevertheless, certain developments since then suggest it’s becoming more likely that a future of flying parcels buzzing overheard is an eventuality, rather than just a possibility.
Drones have often been a rather touchy subject, and with good reason too – developed by the US military, their main application is to deliver weapons of mass destruction rather than Christmas presents. But as with many technologies developed by the military, it’s not long before others start thinking of commercial uses for them, and as such the idea of employing drones as couriers is one of the more obvious.
Amazon’s impressive plan may have been designed as a publicity stunt, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t considering the viability of delivery drones. As it so happens, FedEx founder Fred Smith first floated the idea as far back as 2009. Now, with news of a Senate hearing set to take place early next year and a competitor to Amazon’s Prime Air service apparently in the works, there’s every reason to believe that some are taking the idea seriously.
Shortly after Amazon’s story broke headlines, The Verge revealed that UPS is also working on a very similar project – it wants to use flying robots to deliver certain kinds of items, but at the same time its keenly aware of the numerous problems that need to be overcome before it can actually use such technology in the field.
The problems with Amazon’s delivery drone plan are numerous – flying machines with open, unguarded blades can be extremely dangerous, as one unfortunate soul flying a remote controlled helicopter discover earlier this year. Landing and delivering the goods is the main problem – what if there are kids playing in the yard, overhanging telephone wires, gazebos in the garden or other obstacles? Battery life is another hurdle too, with most small drones only capable of flying for a couple of hours at best, few homes will actually be within reach of them.
To address these, and other issues, it looks like the Senate wants to get involved.
A hearing to discuss the idea of commercial drones being used in US airspace has already been mooted for next year by Senator Jay Rockerfeller, Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. This is important, because it’s likely that other companies (stores, courier firms, fast food outlets etc) will want to launch their own flying drones too.
Regulation is essential if we’re to avoid the potential chaos that hundreds of flying robots buzzing about could cause. For example, will these things be filming us on the fly? What kind of data would they grab? Plus, no one wants to see a mid-air collision that results in your Amazon drone and pizza delivery bot raining down on your front yard – who’s gonna clear up that mess?