On 1st December 2013 Amazon released a teaser video for ‘Amazon Prime Air’. The video (which has been viewed over 16 million times) shows an Amazon order being placed and delivered by a drone within 30 minutes. It was initially dismissed by many as a PR stunt and it certainly achieved that purpose. With its timing around the build up to Christmas it is estimated that Amazon created around $3 million of free advertising from the video and the subsequent press coverage.

Whether the initial video was a PR stunt or not, Amazon has continued with its commitment to provide a drone delivery service. In 2016 (again in the build up to Christmas), it released another video where they showed their private trial for customers in Cambridge. In this video they showed the drones in flight with the stamp “actual flight footage, not simulated”. Amazon aren’t the only company to invest in drones either. UPS are also planning a similar service using drones that take off from a local delivery truck.

The possibility of drone delivery has certain captured people’s imagination and it is a concept that is undeniably attractive. Furthermore, as companies continue to invest resources into this service, it’s no longer appropriate to simply dismiss it as a PR stunt. Now that there is substance behind the concept, it is important to look beneath the promotion and see how realistic drone deliveries really are.

What is currently possible?

There have been a few live, but limited, trials which means it is possible to get some ideas of what this service might look like in a real life environment.

Amazon’s trial is the most advanced and it used real customers (although, only two). Using drones, Amazon were able to deliver an item within 13 minutes of placing the order. The drones themselves are automated and fly using GPS technology at 400ft. They also have a “sense and avoid” system to evade obstacles.  

UPS also had successful trial where they launched a drone from a local delivery truck which then returned to the truck at a different location.

What are the drawbacks?

Current drones are hampered by a number of significant drawbacks; in order to fly they can carry weights of no more than 2.6kg which limits them significantly to only being able to drop off one or two small items at a time, the maximum delivery range is 7.5 miles and customers are required to have a large garden for the drone to be able to land. Drones also don’t perform well in any weather condition beyond “clear and dry”. Rain, wind, snow or even night time would cause the drones to be offline.

Aside from the technical limitations, there are some questions about security that need to be addressed before a live service can be released, particularly the possibility of the drones being shot down and people’s products being stolen. In America, there are further significant legislative hurdles to overcome. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) isn’t planning on beginning the certification process on commercial drones until 2020 and the present rules prohibit drones from leaving the operator’s line of sight.

Why invest in drone delivery?

From the above it is fairly clear that drone delivery services have numerous hurdles to overcome before they are practical, so you may be asking why companies are so keen to offer this service.

Beyond the PR benefits, there are some other good explanations. If companies can find a way to make this service viable, they would likely be the first in the market to do so, which would no doubt be a key selling point. More crucially, is the implication that drone delivery could render excellent returns on investment. Prime air for example is estimated to have a net cost to Amazon of around 69p per delivery making it by far the cheapest and fastest form of delivery on the market. A Prime Now delivery (which is under two hours) costs the consumer £6.99 per delivery, so if Amazon were to charge an equivalent price, the service could be very profitable.

Will it ever happen?

Drone delivery is certainly possible, but is far from being ready to be released to the public. The trials that have taken part so far are on such a small scale and in such a specific environment that at the moment, they serve more of PR purpose than anything else. However, there is a real desire for this type of service and companies are unlikely to abandon the project any time soon.

As for field services, it is too early to speculate how it might affect the industry. Drone deliveries need to be proven in other areas first before companies should seriously consider it as a possibility. This is certainly a service to monitor but until the concept is proven it is more myth than reality.

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