Pie in the Sky?
Major US companies — along with China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba — are in a race to deliver their products to customers’ front doors, but the only thing holding them up could be regulations, CHRISTOPHER DAVIS reports from New York.
Google is testing them; so is Amazon, United Parcel Service and China’s Alibaba. They’re flying robots, they navigate by themselves, they see things, they have intelligence, and, most important to those four companies, they carry things — make that deliver things — and Google, Amazon and UPS have ongoing private experiments in delivery by drone.
Google’s tests are being carried out on the Australian Outback; its 5-footwide, single-wing drone has been delivering small packages of candy and cattle vaccines to two farmers in Queensland.
Google told The Wall Street Journal that it had been working on the project since 2011 and expected it would “take years to develop a service with multiple vehicles flying multiple deliveries per day”.
Google’s vehicle rises into the air helicopter-like and then once airborne, tilts into an airplane configuration and zips away.
In April 2014, Google acquired a maker of solar-powered drones—a startup that Facebook Inc had also considered acquiring. Google didn’t disclose the purchase price for New Mexico-based Titan Aerospace, which is developing jet-sized drones that are intended to fly nonstop for years. Google said the technology could be used to collect images and offer online access to remote areas.
Amazon is experimenting with a 4-propeller arrangement that weighs 5 pounds and has about a 10-mile, 30-minute range from its warehouse base. Contacted for comment, Amazon Prime Air spokeswoman Kristen Kish made reference to the video of the drone at www.amazon.com/ primeair. Taking off
Earlier this month China’s online retail giant Alibaba got into the game with a three-day drone delivery trial that had remote-controlled quadcopters — emblazoned with the Taobao logo — ferrying 12-ounce packages of ginger tea to 450 customers who lived within a one-hour flight of its distribution centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Alibaba CEO Jack Ma said that if the company hoped to reach its 2025 goal of 2 billion customers, it had to adopt methods used by Western tech giants.
The company hired well-known film director Wong Karwai to create an answer to Amazon Prime Air’s demo tape that is now airing on Taobao’s blog. It shows an unhappy woman ordering her ginger tea, then putting on a kettle of water on the stove to boil. By the time the water is ready, her tea is there and she is smiling.
The Tech in Asia blog, one of the first outlets to report the story of Alibaba’s experiment, commended the operation. “Even though it’s very limited in scope, Taobao is delivering real goods to real people, which is a step further than its Western counterpart Amazon has gone.
“That said, which company will actually roll out a fully functioning drone-based delivery service remains to be seen and is still a long way off,” Tech in Asia wrote.
Alibaba is not the first China-based company to experiment with drone delivery. In 2013, InCake, a small bakery in Shanghai began delivering cakes to customers there using remote-controlled drones. That was halted by local authorities for operating without a license.
While flying drones as weapons continue to redefine the rules of military engagement, the private and commercial use of small unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs — is creating a backwash of concern, speculation and wonder.
Will snoops be leering (and filming) from above? Will high-tech contraptions come crashing down on people? Will pizzas and textbooks really be delivered to doorsteps within minutes by whirling bots?
Aside from being just fun to fly, small UAVs, according to advocates, have the potential to transform an economy in a multitude of ways — from aiding precision agriculture and fast environmentally friendly deliveries to first responders and safe inspection of pipelines and cell towers.
“Drones hold the promise of companies anticipating our every need and delivering without human involvement,” Tim Draper, an early investor in Hotmail, Skype and Baidu, wrote in an article entitled: Drones Delivering Pizza? Venture Capitalists Wager on It.
US airspace, he wrote, would soon be populated by drones, and venture capitalists were placing their bets. In the first nine months of 2013 when Draper’s article appeared, VCs in the US had put more than $40 million into drone-related startups, more than double the amount for all of 2012. That same year, the US Congress instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a plan for integrating drones weighing less than 55 pounds into US airspace by Sept 15, 2015.
Within the decade, one analyst predicted, sales of civilian drones would reach $8.2 billion and still be gaining altitude. Tall order
Small UAVs have already carried relatively small, high-value components from one warehouse to another, delivered medical supplies to islands and dog biscuits in the Outback.
“To drop off a big package in front of your door in the suburbs — that’s hard,” said Chris Anderson, CEO of 3-D Robotics, America’s largest maker of drones.
The reasons are obvious. The more congested the area, the harder it is to ensure safety. The more obstacles there are, the less tolerant and more regulated the air space tends to be, and in the US, it’s highly regulated.
But apparently, pizzerias — in less regulated air space — have been tuned in to the drone enthusiast frequency. In 2012, Domino’s Pizza UK and marketing firm T+biscuits made a splash with a video of a “Domicopter” — an 8-rotor, remote-controlled helicopter drone soaring for 10 minutes over the lush English countryside to deliver two pizzas.
A writer for qz.com pointed out that while the stunt demonstrated that it is possible to deliver pizzas remotely and robotically by air, it also into the race. “Like the Wright brothers’ inaugural 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk 111 years prior, the pizza’s history-making trip was short,” reported The Brooklyn Paper, from the top of the shop owner’s roof into the hands of a customer next door.
“The commercial space is accelerating far faster than the traditional aerospace industry largely because it’s using smartphone technology,” said Anderson of of 3-D Robotics, “advancing at a pace we’ve never seen.”
One of the main reasons has been advancements in high-tech hardware. Anderson explained: “The sensors we use — the gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers — 10 years ago those were essentially mechanical, they were military, they cost about $10,000 per axis, so each cylinder cost about $10,000. So nine of them were what you needed to make something the size of a small refrigerator.
“Today you can have one in your pocket on a chip the size of your fingernail. They cost $7 and we all carry one in our phone (the feature that, among other things, makes your iPhone screen rotate to adjust its orientation).
“So if you go from $100,000 to less than $10 in a matter of a decade,” Anderson said. “That’s what I’m talking about.” Big trouble
Last month, a government intelligence worker in Washington who admittedly had been drinking, took a friend’s drone for a test drive at 3 am, lost control of the DJI Phantom, which flew off to he knew not where, and the novice pilot went to bed vaguely worried about where it might turn up.
Rightly so. The drone crash-landed onto the grounds of the White House and when news got out, the operator quickly turned himself in to the Secret Service. The owner of the drone said that the mishap was probably the result of a flyaway malfunction of the model, something online bloggers had complained about earlier.
The manufacturer of the drone — Shenzhen-based Da-Jiang Innovations Science and Technology Co (DJI) — vigorously denied the accusation, saying that for anyone to even consider operating a personal drone so near the White House showed “a remarkable lack of awareness” and that a flyaway was “highly unlikely”.
Flyaways are a major concern in the industry and DJI founder and CEO Frank Wang told the Wall Street Journal earlier: “We have to make something that cannot go wrong in any scenario.”
Wang developed his first unmanned miniature helicopter under the mentorship of Professor Li Zexiang at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and in 2009 achieved the first ever autonomous flight up Mount Everest and surrounding environs, setting a milestone in the history of unmanned flight.
The helicopter had also provided surveillance for search and rescue in the immediate aftermath of the massive Sichuan earthquake of 2008, as well as surveys for the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated region.
DJI is based in the Guangdong province city of Shenzhen, widely considered China’s Silicon Valley. It has grown from a small office in 2006 to a global workforce with offices in the US, Germany, Japan, Beijing and Hong Kong.
DJI’s business has been soaring. From revenues of $4.2 million in 2011 with 90 employees to revenues of more than $130 million and 1,240 employees in 2013 and expectations of increasing sales five-fold in 2014 with three factories and more than 2,800 employees. DJU Spokesman Michael Perry told CCTV in January that the company already controlled 50 percent to 60 percent of the China market. Show stoppers
The so-called drone zone at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month was a swarming hive of every conceivable size and shape of the buzzing gizmos. The show’s organizers said the drone market could reach $130 million in 2015, 50 percent higher than in 2014.
Showgoers were treated to demonstrations of a “selfie drone” that flew up to 200 feet above a person’s head and circled, giving them a 360-degree self-portrait and a pink drone to convince female customers that the joy of droning is not just for geeky guys.
Most of the vendors at the show agreed that the two main obstacles to drones really taking off remained battery-life and regulations.
“Battery life is only one of the limiters,” Anderson said. “They don’t have to be electric. You can have gas-powered drones. There are drones that have flown across the Atlantic Ocean. You can make any kind of drone you want. It can be an airplane, a helicopter, it can be gas-powered, and it can be electric-powered. If you want it to be very small and take off vertically and hover, that’s likely to be electric and their battery power is a limiting factor in terms of time and distance. But if you’re willing to accept things that don’t hover or don’t hover all that long or are bigger, then there’s no reason why you can’t take a 747 and turn it into a drone. That’s what it is for the most part of its flight. It’s on autopilot essentially a drone.”
The average battery life for both budget and economy drones is about 20 minutes, with some barely eking out 10 minutes, and there is no sign of that improving any time soon, experts said.
Anderson said the main barriers are in safety and regulation. “It’s not legal to fly in congested areas, like over people’s homes right now in the US,” he said. “The problem is ensuring that they are so safe and reliable that you can convince regulators to allow them to fly around people.”
The long-awaited FAA rules governing private drone use in the US ended up coming out earlier than planned because they were accidently leaked on the agency’s website and they couldn’t take them down fast enough.
The new rules, which are technically open to debate and won’t go into effect for a year, are “more lax than first feared”, according to 3-D Robotics blogger Roger Sollenberger. Key points
The key points in the regulations, according to the Verge, are that when the rules go into effect about 7,000 companies would start using drones for such chores as inspecting cell towers and monitoring forest fires. Government agencies using drones will have to disclose what they’ve been doing with the data they collect. Operators for private companies will have to pass a certification test (but not hobbyists, for who little changes).
The rules do not paint a rosy horizon for Amazon’s ambitions for drone delivery service, however. Under the proposed rules, drones would not be able to operate beyond the pilot’s line of sight and anyone on the ground underneath its flight path would have to be directly associated with the project.
Amazon responded to the regulations, warning the FAA that if it did not relax that stipulation, they would move their research operation outside of the US.
“Without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad,” said Amazon’s vice-president of global public policy Paul Misener in a letter to the FAA seen by The Wall Street Journal.
“I fear the FAA may be questioning the fundamental benefits of keeping [drone] technology innovation in the United States,” said Misener.
“The use of drones is going to be ubiquitous, it’s going to be at scale, it’s going to be across every sector of the economy,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition.
“It has to be automated, it has to be safe, it has to be responsible, it will create efficiencies the likes of which, someday soon, we won’t know how we lived without them because they will be so important.”
In Japan, they’ve been using drones for agriculture for more than a decade. In Canada, drones of 2.2 kilograms and less are allowed for commercial use under the law.
“The FAA has good intentions, but they’re dealing with a very difficult issue for an agency that deals with manned aviation, they are not the people who deal typically with unmanned aviation,” Drobac said.
“The proposed rule is not going to work,” he said. “Technology will win.”
“Whenever you have something that makes consumers happy, that creates efficiencies, that is proven to work,” he said, “when you have something that will make human lives safer, and it’s innovative and exciting, it will prevail over any obstacles."
“It has to happen or we’re going to watch other countries as really bystanders as the technology really takes off,” he said. “I know that we’re going to come out on the right side of this because there are too many companies in the US that are exploring the possibilities and they’re limitless.”
The FAA has acknowledged that there are more than 300 markets that could benefit from UAV technology. What real estate agent wouldn’t use them to provide bird’s-eye views of their listings, he said, and how many real estate agents are there? Contact the writer at chrisdavis@ chinadailyusa.com
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