In November last year Amazon made headlines with their announcement that, in the near future, they would use automated drones to deliver packages to customers within 30 minutes of an order. With other companies already pursuing similar technology, just how fast is drone delivery becoming a reality?

Amazon aim to deliver in 30 minutes

Amazon’s video touting their drone delivery service, Prime Air, saw Jeremy Clarkson describing the drones’ route through some tastefully filmed countryside, but it could hardly have been called a launch. While chief executive Jeff Bezos predicts that Prime Air will be available within five years, US regulations do not allow commercial drones to use civilian air space.

A touchy subject

There is always an adjustment period with new technology. A recent mishap, however, went beyond the level of technical glitch. In April, a drone collided with a British Airways jet landing in Heathrow. Nothing about the incident prevented the jet from landing safely, but it was unnerving, and the Civil Aviation Authority ("CAA") was quick to remind the public that flying drones close to airports was ‘totally unacceptable’ and carries the risk of imprisonment.

For now, in the UK, there are restrictions on weight (of the drone) and height (how high it can be flown) and rules about how close these unmanned aircraft, as the CAA calls them, can fly near civilians, buildings or moving vehicles. If the drone’s purpose is at all commercial, then you must secure permission from the CAA in every case.

Technological hurdles

Much of technological development work these days is focused on getting drones to communicate with each other to share flight paths while applying sense-and-avoid technology to avoid obstacles. Amazon vice president Paul Misener explains: ‘… flying objects identify themselves to each other and you can avoid them on that basis. There are existing technologies used for aircraft that do this quite well. But there are a lot of non-collaborative objects out there.’

In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority is guiding a June release for rules around commercial use. You may not be surprised to hear that the ubiquitous Google is also having a go, and the June guidance gives it some time before it releases the results of its Project Wing next year. The Internet powerhouse’s programme will apparently use mobile robotic structures on the ground to meet the drone, accept the package, and then scurry off to a warehouse. In this brave new world, there’s more than one way to go.