Shipping by Drones a Possibility but Long Road Ahead

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By Divya Avasthy | December 4, 2013 1:20 AM EST

Amazon Prime Air Drones could be used to deliver orders within 30 minutes (Screengrab)

Amazon is not the first company that envisioned delivery drones. FedEx founder Fred Smith had told Wired magazine in 2009 that he wanted the company to switch to drones as soon as possible pending the approval of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Many companies are waiting eagerly for US regulators' approval to start drone services. The FAA currently only approves the use of drones for police and government agencies.

Amazon's ambition to start shipping by drones in the near future is not altogether unrealistic, but there are several practical challenges that will need to be worked on before this vision is translated into reality.

For every challenge on the regulatory horizon, there does appear a silver lining in the clouds of potential barriers.

Regulatory Challenges

FAA mostly issues certifications for public safety and law enforcement purposes, including firefighting, border control and search-and-rescue missions. As of February this year, there were 327 active drone certifications for public safety and law enforcement purposes in the US, according to Reuters.

FAA estimates that once a regulatory framework is in place 7,500 commercial drones will be viable within five years.

This progress on the regulatory front made Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos hope that FAA will streamline regulatory rules for drone services by "as early as sometime in 2015".

Recently, FAA also certified two expensive unmanned aircraft for commercial use, which potentially opens up the US market for drones. This July, FAA gave green signal to Boeing Co's (BA.N) ScanEagle and AeroVironment Inc's (AVAV.O) Puma, which was the first US certification of drones for commercial use, according to Reuters.

These developments were a "giant leap" in commercialization of drones, according to FAA.

Cheaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) still face a web of regulations before becoming commercially viable. There are a range of safety concerns that need to be considered by the FAA.

Low-price GPS-controlled drones can be susceptible to "spoofing", i.e. manipulation of coordinates by hackers. The FAA reportedly has not yet even started addressing spoofing.

"The safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the NAS [National Airspace System] is a significant challenge," the FAA said, as drones "have significantly increased in number, technical complexity, and sophistication during recent years without having the same history of compliance and oversight as manned aviation."

Another critical component of certification rules for drones is training of UAV pilots, which will be announced by 2017, while other aspects of regulatory framework might not be completed by 2026, the FAA has predicted.

Technological hurdles

The ability to steer clear of other flying or stationary objects in low-fly zones is a potential concern, which needs to be tackled before drones are safely used in urban areas.

FAA bans drone flights over 400 feet altitude and near airports and populated areas. Amazon might be able to keep up with these guidelines, but will have to figure out ways to safely and efficiently deliver packages in populated areas.

However, tech scientists have already been mulling over these potential hurdles and have successfully pioneered great advances in robotic technology.

"In order to do things useful for people, the robot has to know its environment," Stefanie Tellex, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Reuters.By equipping the robots with laser sensors and large databases of known objects, researchers hope drones will be able to deduce the layouts of new buildings and landscapes and maybe pinpoint the door, Tellex said.

Cost hurdles

The high-performance drones capable of long-range flights at high speed can be expensive, in the range of $50,000 - $100,000, while budget drones such as the $300 AR Parrot could be hazardously unreliable. But there are several affordable models which are around $3,000, the report said.

On the positive side, drone development is already a big industry in the US. About 50 companies are working on 150 systems right now, according to CS Monitor. Civilian UAV sales are expected to hit $6 billion by 2016. Civilians and hobbyists are already flying drones for land-use planning and photography.

Companies are lining up before FAA to certify their cheaper drones, citing affordability factor for greater penetration. Last month many such UAVs received certification for farming applications.

Rory Paul, chief executive of Volt Aerial Robotics, a St. Louis-based company, reportedly said the efficiency gains from using UAVs to map farmland have led many farmers to use low-price drones, not always in accordance with FAA regulations.

"The FAA doesn't have inspectors running around the heartland looking for people with UAVs," Paul said.

Paul has sold his company's Octane quadcopters to many farmers at around $10,000. Fixed-wing UAV called the WaveSight which cost about $50,000 are also marketed by the company.

Amazon plans futuristic drone services on a much larger scale, akin to UAV cargo airlines across the US.

The vision is not completely unrealistic and the recent approvals of ScanEagle and Puma are being touted as the first steps towards unleashing multibillion-dollar industry that had until now mainly limited to military and other government applications.

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