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.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

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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