FAA gives permission for Amazon’s drones to take off

Discussion
Photo: Amazon
Sep 02, 2020
George Anderson

The Federal Aviation Administration approved Amazon Prime Air as an official “air carrier” last week, enabling the company to get its commercial drone delivery program off the ground in the U.S.

“This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world,” Amazon Prime Air VP David Carbon said in a statement. “We will continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones into the airspace and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery.”

Amazon’s aspirations for drone deliveries have been public knowledge going back to at least 2013 when CEO Jeff Bezos told a national audience on a “60 Minutes” segment that his company had a vision of using drones, more specifically octocopters, to deliver packages of up to five pounds to customers within a 10-mile radius from its expanding network of fulfillment centers in a half-hour or less. Last year, Amazon showed off its latest hexagonal drone model that could cover 15 miles in the same timeframe.

Even with its newly granted status, Amazon is still a ways off from filling the air with its delivery drones. FAA’s approval extends to using its unmanned craft to participate in a trial program overseen by the government.

“This is a long time coming for Amazon,” former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told The Wall Street Journal. “They are developing real-time data, which is helpful to the [FAA] and gives Amazon a lot of experience in working through the growing pains of getting this business established.”

Amazon is not alone in its view that drones will offer a viable parcel delivery option in the future.

In May, CVS and UPS partnered together to begin delivering prescription medicines to residents of The Villages, Florida’s largest retirement community.

Alphabet-owned Wing Aviation began the first commercial drone delivery pilot program last October in Christianburg, VA, and has since expanded to making local deliveries from Walgreens, FedEx and several small businesses.

UberEats began working with McDonald’s to trial drone delivery in San Diego. The company said the drones had the ability to deliver online orders three times faster than bikes or cars at roughly the same cost as its standard service.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How quickly do you expect widespread drone deliveries in the U.S. to take off now that the FAA has granted permission to Alphabet, Amazon and UPS to engage in trial programs? Does the FAA’s approval suggest that these companies have addressed safety and other concerns that have slowed deployment in the past?

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"This is good for experimentation, but I still don’t see a near-term future where lots of drones are flying around dropping off packages at consumers’ homes."
"Widespread drone deliveries could take five years – yet new pandemic lockdowns would expedite that timeline."
"How is Amazon’s warehouse blimps in the sky project going, by the way?"

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32 Comments on "FAA gives permission for Amazon’s drones to take off"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

While this is important progress, I still think we’re years away from seeing delivery drones fill our skies. I have no doubt that drones will eventually play a meaningful role in our everyday lives, and be a meaningful and cost effective delivery system for certain goods. However the concern remains: what does this look like at scale? How does the FAA manage hundreds and even thousands of drones buzzing about? How will people feel about it? Many questions remain.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Mark, you touched on the key phrase in this discussion: “…fill our skies…” As an engineer by training, I admire the progress of science but dread its application in this case.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

The key here to me is the word “rural.” You can see how this idea would come to fruition much quicker and much more effectively first in rural areas where driving trucks to houses five miles apart makes little financial sense. I love the idea but, for urban areas, not so much and especially not for the first effort. And you can bet the whole world is watching!

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

It’s so rare that we need anything that fast that we ever want to have more vehicle clutter and noise in our neighborhood. When this really comes to be, we’ll see how many people feel as we do and how many take advantage of the opportunity to hone their target shooting skills.

Art Suriano
Guest
I am not surprised that Amazon received approval for using drones. There is a tremendous amount of money invested in this, and Amazon is not about to waste money on something unless they know it will be worth it. However I don’t expect to see drones used for at least several years. There is no denying this will be a great technology and allow for the fastest delivery possible, but there are many factors to consider where something can go wrong. Accidents can happen such as 1.) mechanical failure and a drone falling from the sky landing on someone’s head, possibly killing them; 2.) a glitch causing two drones to collide and break apart, causing debris to fall to the ground; 3.) packages wrongly being dropped from the air and more. If you look at history, it took decades for the railroad companies to work out their kinks and the same goes for the auto industry. I don’t see this taking decades with technology skills today, but I do see several years before drones will… Read more »
Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust

It is a significant milestone. For low density suburban locations, and particularly rural ones, the impact on the time and cost of serving last mile could be very high.

This would be yet another barrier for the competition and win for the customers.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This is good for experimentation, but I still don’t see a near-term future where lots of drones are flying around dropping off packages at consumers’ homes. We are still quite some way off from that Jetsons-like future!

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I remember seeing this on 60 Minutes. I thought, this is really cool technology — but I still wonder how the FAA will police these drones especially in dense cities like NYC. I can imagine hundreds of these in the air from different companies — then what?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Richard, as a practical matter I’m less concerned with the drone traffic managed by the FAA and more concerned with “rogue” drones that might be deployed to interfere with the approved drones.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Ryan, yes, most definitely a concern.

Michael La Kier
BrainTrust

Permission to try does not mean success. Even an approved test in one or two communities does not signal success is to come. There is a mountain of hurdles for drone delivery to become a reality even in a single market. The near term future will be costly and full of experiments. We are still a long way off before any of these players (despite their funding) have a fully functioning drone delivery system.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

If this is not controlled very tightly, it is going to cause mayhem in the skies with potentially fatal consequences which are totally unnecessary. Nobody except a dying person or medical professional in need of a life-saving tool or drug needs anything that quickly.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

It may be a mistake to assume drone delivery will be aimed primarily at urban/suburban areas. With a range of 15 miles and distribution centers located in rurban retail hubs, drones could be very cost effective in delivering high value items to rural homes right now. I don’t know what the volume for a given geographic area has to be for this to pay out. But it seems a drone has to be cheaper than a conventional delivery.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Wouldn’t you love to see the financials on drone delivery?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

In labor costs drones win. Energy usage? I’m not sure, but I have to believe drones are potentially cheaper. Environmental impact costs? Drones would help lower these. So I guess it really depends on which financial impacts you are looking at. I’m not making a case for drones, just noting that we can see why Amazon finds then attractive.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Good points, Ryan. You have to wonder about insurance, though…

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

This has been a long time coming – but it doesn’t make it any less scary. Sure the drones will take pressure off the USPS and other carriers. However the opportunity for fraudulent drones — those masquerading as Amazon drones — is nervous-making. There are any number of organizations or individuals who might now see drones as a new mechanism for destruction, privacy violations, or even terrorism.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

But what stops, “any number of organizations or individuals,” from pursuing those negative activities now? I’m not pro-drone necessarily, but any tool can be misused or weaponized. We don’t ban hammers because in the wrong hands they can inflict blunt force trauma.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

This is very interesting. There were some experiments taking place by Amazon in rural Cambridgeshire, U.K. 12 to 18 months ago. While there was a lot of media coverage initially it is not clear what happened next – however based on this many were expecting these to commence first in the U.K. It will be great to see what happens next – with consumers seeking contact free acquisition of products it could well be the point in time at which these become mainstream.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

We often talk about the last mile. This doesn’t solve the “last mile challenge,” but it does solve “the last five or 10 mile problem.”

There should be no contest regarding the economics of sending a truck with a driver versus sending a drone.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Gene, I agree. Now, I don’t know enough about drones to know how they are impacted by things like weather, etc., but clearly they should be cheaper to deploy.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Significant progress for sure, but while there is plenty of potential for drone-based deliveries in our future, I still don’t see how this is going to be managed at a large scale. Imagine hundreds to thousands of drones in the skies in one area. I haven’t seen anything that instills a sense of safety. I can see this working in less populous areas where the cost of car and truck delivery may be higher. Otherwise we are still years away from large scale drone delivery.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Widespread drone deliveries could take five years – yet new pandemic lockdowns would expedite that timeline. For years, Amazon rivals Alibaba and JD.com have used drone deliveries to reach rural consumers in China. FAA approval suggests these tech and delivery companies improved safety and privacy issues. Staying competitive amid Asian automation may have also influenced the FAA decision.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust

Are we going to have drone wars as other mega retailers jump in? This will not end well, as drones at some time are going to crash — and then here come the lawsuits. We have retailers everywhere. How much weight can a delivery take? It will cost a small fortune to get a delivery. People with lots of money will use this service to impress their friends, but what average Joe is going to use it on a regular basis? How is Amazon’s warehouse blimps in the sky project going, by the way?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Tony, trucks crash too — more often than drones, in fact. But your point about who gets access to airspace is a profound one.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

A new era of last-mile delivery has begun. This is very exciting and will be a game changer for both sides (brands and their customers.) The companies using drones have been “practicing” for a number of years. Now, let’s see how it all plays out. (Note: If the FAA gave approval, I’m sure the safety concerns were addressed at a very high level – and they will continue to be monitored.)

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust
In a drone filled sky, like a busy city, bad actors will be given cover for nefarious activities. Recently on vacation at the coast, I noticed a drone, like a black spider in the sky, hovering high enough in the sky to be out of one’s normal line of vision, static in place with a view into the windows of all the hotel rooms. It was quite shocking once I noticed this drone from the deck of my hotel room. In fact, it ruined my morning in disgust at the invasion of my privacy affecting the freedom of being in nature. No longer will we humans be able to sit on our porches, decks, and parks in peace. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. I believe we as citizens we should be able to vote on giving our skies and peace of mind over to the delivery of packages to benefit the coffers of large corporations. Life is chaotic enough. Think of all your neighbors using their leaf blowers all day long,… Read more »
Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Excellent points Cynthia. Where is the peace of sitting outside and enjoying the calm when a drone passes across one’s view with its annoying droning sound (even if it’s not visible)? Just because retailers want to boost profits and cut staff, are citizens expected to give up yet another freedom? How many drones at what frequency at what dB level during what operating hours on what days are acceptable?

jbarnes
Guest

Love the innovation and encourage the progress as it relates to transportation. The transportation industry is 50 years behind other industries and I am being kind. However, think about the practicality of delivering freight or parcels with a drone.

For example, a 40 foot trailer can hold 1,800 parcels (1 cubic foot) on average at 80% trailer utilization. A parcel package van on average delivers 30 to 40 stops per route based upon package cube and route density. Now imagine the number of drones required to move the last mile. This is not possible in suburban and urban areas The challenge is also with city ordinances and the permission to fly drones. The FAA requires line of sight. Again love the innovation and forward thinking, but there are others areas I would be spending capital with respect to transportation innovation.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

This is another example of technology being available and real-life deployment being problematic. Sure, drones delivering medicine to remote areas would be good. But widespread deployment of drones to deliver everyday CPG products would make for crowded skies, dead birds, and a ton of regulations — not to mention target practice for bored and feisty hunters.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Drones will be a nice addition when they become mainstream, but many complications including local ordinances and permissions from homeowners exist. A lot of moving parts. It will be exciting to watch the program evolve. Still it’s just a first step in a multi year program that if successful will quickly be copied by others.

For Amazon, this will be marketing and being a (shipping, carrier, and logistics) industry leader, no substantial first-mover advantages here, and won’t change their retail future by any stretch. I think it’ll take 5 years to become mainstream, but it will introduce other problems including safety, management, user training, and more.

raj
Guest

The way I can think is to have identified a drone delivery organization/companies “zone” (urban/rural) which should have a manageable number of companies allowed per zone to operate (with inter and intra communication enabled and strictly monitored) These organizations/companies must be impaneled with government agencies, statuary body(s) and should be policed and only allowed to grow slowly based on KPIs like number of accidents (connected with matrices collected at insurance companies, consumer protection systems, police, and administrations….).

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"This is good for experimentation, but I still don’t see a near-term future where lots of drones are flying around dropping off packages at consumers’ homes."
"Widespread drone deliveries could take five years – yet new pandemic lockdowns would expedite that timeline."
"How is Amazon’s warehouse blimps in the sky project going, by the way?"

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