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The drone dilemma

The drone dilemma

Just in time for Christmas, a ripple of delivery excitement is moving through the e-commerce market.  Amazon has made Richard B. of Cambridgeshire a happy man by dropping his online purchase on his lawn within 13 minutes of his clicking the order through.[1]

It is true that he lives within walking distance of the Amazon warehouse that is piloting the service but still, it is a step in the right direction and Amazon has pipped other rivals such as Google to the post in completing a successful trial.  Domino was the first retailer to make commercial drone deliveries a reality when it launched pizza drops in New Zealand this past August.[2]

There are obvious benefits to this new distribution channel.  One is speed, if you live close to a storage facility.  Those who don’t are out of luck for now since the range of the current crop of drones is a mere 15 miles but that will surely change, and fast, once local trials are complete.  Another advantage is that the drone is a fuel-free vehicle so, once manufactured, leaves a minimal carbon footprint.  It is designed to fly at 400 feet or below and Amazon has patented a combination of laser, sonar and other technologies to ‘sense and avoid’ potential obstacles on its routes.

So far so good.  But there are drawbacks.  The current model deposits the package outside so the service is rendered impractical if the weather is anything other than clear, dry and calm.  There is resistance from the civil aviation sector too.  Though Amazon may have developed a fool proof sensory technology, there is mounting concern among commercial pilots and airport operators about low altitude interference from drones after four separate near-collisions were reported in July.[3]

Drones can now be purchased for as little as £10 and are therefore well within the attainment capabilities of most families.  As a result, they already sell in their tens of thousands each year. Economies of scale will inevitably allow developers to move fast with accelerated performance enhancements, increasing range and sophistication.

This would be good if it weren’t that the principal beneficiary of widespread drone use might be the criminal fraternity.  Drug rings are already more than adept at manoeuvring drones into Pentonville and Strangeways prisons and there are worries about drone use for smuggling, spying and terrorist attacks.

The organisers of the recent ‘Countering Drones’ conference reported that 80% of respondents to a recent survey believed that there would be a major security incident involving drones in civilian airspace in the next five years.[4]

Perhaps a comprehensive drone register would be a good place to start.

[1] Amazon successfully trials drone delivery
[2] Domino’s delivers NZ pizza by drone
[3] Four near drone misses in civilian airspace
[4] Countering Drones conference