At the beginning of this month Amazon caused a global sensation when they announced their intentions to launch a new service Amazon Prime Air.
Prime Air is a revolutionary new delivery mechanism that would see the e-commerce giant utilise small unmanned drones to deliver packages weighing under 2.3kg to consumers within 30 minutes of ordering. It is the stuff of science fiction fantasy but if the plans are real then Amazon’s plans then it could be a move that will change field service forever.
But is there any substance to Amazon’s claims or is this just a very sophisticated marketing move? Serious questions remain about the legality of such a venture with legislation unclear both in the US and the UK , whilst the timing of the announcement, with the usually secretive Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appearing on CBS’ 60 Minutes programme the day before ‘Cyber Monday’, raised further questions also.
Yet at the same time, if Amazon can find their way around the legislative maze that stands in their way, and if they have indeed perfected the technology then the business case for such a bold move is certainly sound.
Online purchases have been reported as having increased 20% year over year over the Christmas periods. If this figure is compounded, that equate to business doubling within just four years. The likelihood of Amazon being able to double their delivery capacity using existing methods by 2017 is questionable at best. Add to this the increasing consumer demand for free delivery driven by a highly competitive market, then finding an improved means of delivering small packages becomes a high priority to keep their business sustainable.
What Amazon’s official statements say…
With a powerful video that outlines Amazon’s vision for future deliveries sat prominently on their official site it certainly seems that Amazon themselves see Prime Air as more than just a pipe dream but an actual viable solution they will be rolling out to customers within the medium term.
In a dedicated FAQ about the Octocopters (Amazon’s official name for their drones) they describe the technology as:
"It looks like science fiction, but it's real. From a technology point of view, we'll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles”
In the same section they also claim that the “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today” and that the drones could be in action as early as 2015. They also appear to address one of the most likely objections to drone fleets taking to the skies… public safety.
Amazon’s official statement reads “The FAA is actively working on rules and an approach for unmanned aerial vehicles that will prioritise public safety. Safety will be our top priority, and our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards.”
But safety isn’t the public’s only objection to the drones…
A divided public reaction…
In the days following the announcement the Internet was buzzing with articles and comments about the drones. If the old cliché that there is no such thing as bad coverage is true, then this certainly was a PR masterpiece by Amazon as their brand was suddenly everywhere.
Many responses were positive, openly welcoming the announcement. Comments from a BBC online article discussing the drones included:
“The sooner the better. I'm sick of being imprisoned in my home waiting for deliveries to my online shopping mad daughters. Perhaps with this delivery system I will be able to go out and do some real shopping. You know, the type where you choose what you want and get it there and then.”
“Yes, I believe that this would be an effective means of parcel delivery... Eventually. Drones of this type can be easily flown and built, from as little as £100. A model aircraft can be classed as a drone. The law does not currently stop people from strapping a small GoPro camera to the front of a model aircraft, yet. Drones have many practical uses, but must be used in the correct way.”
However, whilst some greeted the prospect of drone fleets warmly many used the forum to express their misgivings about the concept.
“What about people living in apartments with no direct access to street level. I'm reckoning this will be limited to people who live in suburban detached or terraced houses - can't see this making its way to inner city areas with the technology advancing well enough to avoid substantial damage to property or life.”
“Amazon's aim is to get goods to customers faster and cheaper; and make more profit. Machines can put many people out of work, but we still have no plan in place to deal with it's effect, i.e.: unemployment.”
Certainly it seems that public opinion remains divided but what about the corporate world? Read the second part of this feature where we assess how Amazon’s competition has reacted, the regulatory challenges that need to be overcome if Amazon Air Prime is ever going to be realised, and one potential solution that could see drone fleets arriving sooner than you might think…