Amazon's Drone Delivery: Why It Won't Fly

By Rob Enderle December 02, 2013

The Amazon idea is compelling a ton of little robotic delivery drones sized to match the package and weight flying through the air delivering packages minutes from when they were ordered on-line.   If successful this could literally make the brick and mortar stores obsolete because you could get everything from groceries to electronics quickly and cheaply (it only costs the minimal electric power to deliver the package).   It sounds too good to be true and, in fact, it is.   The technology problems can be solved the issues is the danger of lots of flying devices with significant, and perhaps deadly, weight flying overhead. 

And there is an easier safer way to get similar benefits. 

The Problem with Flying

We were promised flying cars long before the end of the last century and we clearly have had vertical takeoff and landing capability for some time.  Helicopters and even jets can take off in little more room than the average driveway has so why aren’t we up to our armpits in rich people in flying cars?  

The problem is traffic management and danger.  If you have a break down on the road you might get rear ended but if you have a breakdown in the air, particularly if the object is using helicopter technology, the end result can be devastating.  You can install fast deploy parachutes but these typically take over a hundred feet to deploy making them unacceptable for low flying aircraft and that’s typically what these things are particularly during take-off and landing.  

Now, let’s talk about having thousands of these flying around at the same time keeping them from running into each other, finding a power line or other obstacle not on a map, or hitting something like a crane that wasn’t there when the map was done would be incredibly difficult.   You could fly slow but that would make it more likely you’d run out of power and you could increase the intelligence of the device but remember birds, which are pretty good at flying and are relatively intelligent (when compared to drones) fly into things all the time.   

One of the things they fly into is aircraft engines and that would create a huge no fly zone around airports.    

Security

We had a terrorist try to use remote control planes filled with explosives and fortunately he was stopped before he executed.  However a remote control plane flying towards the White House would be rather suspicious if also relatively hard to shoot down.  But if you have thousands of these things flying around how could you tell if one or two of them was a flying bomb and not a legitimate delivery vehicle?

And then you have the issue of hacking, if the devices were hacked (remember the drone that was hijacked by the Iranians?)  they could suddenly swarm a plane that was landing or taking off, or drop their packages from deadly altitude on a school or sports event for maximum impact.  

Keeping hackers out of the system or keeping them from stealing, duplicating, or compromising one of these flying devices would be nearly impossible.  

Traffic

One final concern is that once Amazon did this everyone and their brother would want to get something like this for themselves. UPS, Round Table, Safeway not to mention Pharmacies and other retailers like Best Buy. You can imagine a future where there is constant aerial combat between delivery vehicles each with accident avoidance capability but can you imagine a city of 200,000 people might have 10,000 of these in the air at high traffic times.   Watching the Pizza places alone trying to get their deliveries out during half time during a big game might be a sport in and of itself but the potential for collisions goes up dramatically as more and more companies attempt to get their devices in the air.   This means traffic rules, flight corridors, and other moves to regulate traffic which will cause congestion, add distance and then you have to think about enforcement.   Not everyone will want to follow the rules so you’ll need drone traffic cops and suddenly this is looking incredibly difficult to pull off.  

Wrapping Up:  Self-driving Delivery Vehicles

A better solution is likely self-driving delivery vehicles.  You could tie them to the recipient so that when a package is incoming the recipient can make an appointment to meet it (no drivers so they vehicles could be dispatched on call).  Then the recipient meets the vehicle in front of their house/apartment after receiving a text it has arrived, enters their pin number, and has the package passed to them out of shoot kind of like a vending machine.  This would actually be safer, with respect to theft, and more convenient than it is now.   You’d have to do the same thing (make an appointment with the fly in device) anyway because it’d likely need to drop the package away from the home/apartment for safety.   This would give you most of the advantage of a flying delivery system with less risk (the roads, enforcement, and traffic control systems are already in place) and you wouldn’t need a battery breakthrough or a new fast deploy parachute system to keep the trucks going.  

So, I really doubt this Amazon service will take flight, there are simply too many hurdles to get over.   Then again, once we have flying self-driving cars, it wouldn’t be hard to do flying self-driving delivery vans.   Call me next century.   




Edited by Ryan Sartor

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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