Some time ago, an ambitious startup named Flirtey has managed to perform the first FAA-sanctioned drone delivery in a rural area, and it looks like its creators have even greater plans for this special drone. On March 10, the autonomous hexacopter managed to perform a half-a-mile flight to an empty house in Hawthorne, Nevada in order to deliver essentials such as food, water and a first-aid kit. What’s impressive about this is that the drone flew over there by its own while following a pre-programmed path. A pilot was on site to take over just in case things went south, but fortunately, everything went exactly according to plan.
Obviously, it’s one thing to carry some food and water to an empty house and another to carry large electronics such as TVs, which means that retailers such as Amazon still needs to figure out a better way to transport large fragile objects to its customers. Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny has stated that he managed to convince the FAA to sign off on this trial by invoking the company’s previous success in delivering car parts and textbooks to parts of New Zealand and Australia. The next big thing for Flirtey is to conduct a similar experiment in an urban populated area, which will probably be quite a bit more challenging.
Amazon has been developing its drone delivery service, Amazon Prime Air, for nearly three years. While the process has been slow, and had many hurdles to tackle, the company remains confident that Prime Air will launch soon, but it will not necessarily make its debut in the US.
In an exclusive interview with Yahoo, Amazon’s Vice President for Global Public Policy Paul Misener, revealed that the logistics of Prime Air, which will use custom drones to make deliveries more than 10 miles from an Amazon depot, have been established, with the only sticking point, in the US at least, being with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“The goals we’ve set for ourselves are: The range has to be over 10 miles. These things will weigh about 55 pounds each, but they’ll be able to deliver parcels that weigh up to five pounds,” Misener told Yahoo’s David Pogue. “It turns out that the vast majority of the things we sell at Amazon weigh less than five pounds.”
Regarding dealing with climate, weather conditions, and urban terrain, Misener said, “our customers live in a wide variety of buildings. Some live in rural farmhouses, some live in high-rise city skyscrapers, and then everything in between, in suburban and exurban environments. We want to be able to serve all of those customers. And it may take a different kind of a drone to best work in each one.”
Amazon is still in negotiations with the FAA, and various other international airspace regulators, to make Prime Air viable without impacting existing air traffic.
“[W]e’ve proposed to regulators around the world, including the FAA, a certain kind of an airspace design that would keep the drones separated from the aircraft,” Misener explained. “We were thinking: Manned aircraft above 500 feet. Between 400 and 500 feet there’d be a no-fly zone — a safety buffer. Between 200 and 400 feet would be a transit zone, where drones could fly fairly quickly, horizontally. And then below 200 feet, that would be limited to certain operations. For us, it would be takeoff and landing. For others, it might be aerial photography. The realtors, for example, wouldn’t need to fly above 200 feet to get a great shot of a house.”
However, if the FAA refuses to allow Amazon’s drone deliveries, the company will continue to pursue the strategy in other countries. “There’s no reason why the United States must be first,” Misener added. “We hope it is.”
Amazon released a new video last month showcasing Prime Air, inexplicably starring Jeremy Clarkson (well, he is under contract now):
Even though Amazon’s plan to use drones for its delivery services is not yet viable for a number of reasons, at least the FAA is helping move things along. Recently, an FAA-approved drone managed to successfully deliver medical supplies to a relatively remote clinic in Virginia. The pop-up clinic is assembled one weekend each year at county fairgrounds, which is why people eventually ended up camping in their cars in order to receive much-needed medical attention. Delivering the medical supplies by car would have taken about 90 minutes on bad roads, most of which were blocked by cars anyway.
The drone was controlled by a company named Flirtey, whose members already conduct similar deliveries in New Zealand. It’s true that flying a drone over a rural area is not the same thing as flying one over a busy city, but it’s still a step in the right direction. What matters is that the clinic managed to receive its supplies quickly and without incident and that it could help out a few more people as a result.
Do you think that drones are reliable enough to be used for cargo transportation on a larger scale?
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