WHERE ARE THE DRONES? AMA­ZON’S CUS­TOMERS ARE STILL WAIT­ING

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Jeff Be­zos boldly pre­dicted five years ago that drones would be car­ry­ing Ama­zon pack­ages to peo­ple’s doorsteps by now.

Ama­zon cus­tomers are still wait­ing. And it’s un­clear when, if ever, this par­tic­u­lar or­der by the com­pany’s founder and CEO will ar­rive.

Be­zos made bil­lions of dol­lars by trans­form­ing the re­tail sec­tor. But over­com­ing the reg­u­la­tory hur­dles and safety is­sues posed by drones ap­pears to be a chal­lenge even for the world’s wealth­i­est man. The re­sult is a blown dead­line on his claim to CBS’“60 Min­utes” in De­cem­ber 2013 that drones would be mak­ing de­liv­er­ies within five years.

The day may not be far off when drones will carry medicine to peo­ple in ru­ral or re­mote ar­eas, but the mar­ket­ing hype around in­stant de­liv­ery of con­sumer goods looks more and more like just that — hype. Drones have a short bat­tery life, and pri­vacy con­cerns can be a hin­drance, too.

“I don’t think you will see de­liv­ery of bur­ri­tos or di­a­pers in the sub­urbs,” says drone an­a­lyst Colin Snow.

Drone usage has grown rapidly in some in­dus­tries, but mostly out­side the re­tail sec­tor and di­rect in­ter­ac­tion with con­sumers.

The gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that about 110,000 com­mer­cial drones are op­er­at­ing in U.S. airspace, and the num­ber is ex­pected to soar to about 450,000 in 2022. They are be­ing used in ru­ral ar­eas for min­ing and agri­cul­ture, for in­spect­ing power lines and pipe­lines, and for sur­vey­ing.

Ama­zon says it is still push­ing ahead with plans to use drones for quick de­liv­er­ies, though the com­pany is stay­ing away from fixed time­lines.

“We are com­mit­ted to mak­ing our goal of de­liv­er­ing pack­ages by drones in 30 min­utes or less a re­al­ity,” says Ama­zon spokes­woman Kris­ten Kish. The Seat­tle-based on­line re­tail gi­ant says it has drone de­vel­op­ment cen­ters in the United States, Aus­tria, France, Is­rael and the United King­dom.

De­liv­ery com­pa­nies have been test­ing the use of drones to de­liver emer­gency sup­plies and to cover ground quickly in less pop­u­lated ar­eas. By con­trast, pack­age de­liv­er­ies would be con­cen­trated in of­fice parks and neigh­bor­hoods where there are big­ger is­sues around safety and pri­vacy.

In May, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­proved a three-year pro­gram for pri­vate com­pa­nies and lo­cal gov­ern­ment agen­cies to test drones for de­liv­er­ies, in­spec­tions and other tasks.

But pilot pro­grams by ma­jor de­liv­ery com­pa­nies sug­gest few Amer­i­cans will be greeted by pack­age-bear­ing drones any time soon. United Par­cel Ser­vice tested launch­ing a drone from a de­liv­ery truck that was cover­ing a ru­ral route in Florida. DHL Ex­press, the Ger­man de­liv­ery com­pany, tested the use of drones to de­liver medicine from Tan­za­nia to an is­land in Lake Vic­to­ria.

Frank Ap­pel, the CEO of DHL’s par­ent com­pany, Deutsche Post AG, said “over the next cou­ple of years” drones will re­main a niche ve­hi­cle and not widely used. He said a big ob­sta­cle is bat­tery life.

“If you have to recharge them ev­ery other hour, then you need so many drones and you have to or­ches­trate that. So good luck with that,” he told.

Ap­pel said hu­man couri­ers have an­other big ad­van­tage over drones: They know where cus­tomers live and which door­bell to ring. “To pro­gram that in IT is not that easy and not cheap,” he said.

An­a­lysts say it will take years for the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion to write all the rules to al­low wide­spread drone de­liv­er­ies.

Snow, the CEO of Sky­logic Re­search, says a rule per­mit­ting op­er­a­tors to fly drones be­yond their line of sight — so crit­i­cal to de­liv­er­ies — is at least 10 years away. A method will be needed to let law en­force­ment iden­tify drones fly­ing over peo­ple — fed­eral of­fi­cials are wor­ried about their use by ter­ror­ists.

While the rules are be­ing writ­ten, com­pa­nies will rely on waivers from the FAA to keep ex­per­i­ment­ing and run­ning small-scale pilot pro­grams.

“Peo­ple like DHL and the rest of them (will say), ‘Hey, we can de­liver via drone this par­cel pack­age to this is­land,’ but that’s not the orig­i­nal vi­sion that Ama­zon pre­sented,” Snow says.

There is a long list of FAA rules govern­ing drone flights. They gen­er­ally can’t fly higher than 400 feet, over many fed­eral fa­cil­i­ties, or within five miles of an air­port. Night flights are for­bid­den. For the de­liv­ery busi­ness, the big­gest holdup is that the ma­chines must re­main within sight of the oper­a­tor at all times.

In June, the Na­tional Acad­e­mies of Sci­ences, En­gi­neer­ing, and Medicine said the FAA was be­ing overly con­ser­va­tive in its safety stan­dards for drones. The group said FAA’s riska­verse at­ti­tude was hold­ing back ben­e­fi­cial uses, such as drones help­ing fire­fight­ers who are bat­tling a fierce blaze.

Even be­fore the crit­i­cism by the sci­en­tific panel, the FAA had be­gun to re­spond more quickly to op­er­a­tors’ re­quests for waivers from some rules, says Alan Perl­man, founder of the Drone Pilot Ground School in Nashville, Ten­nessee. He said it is also get­ting eas­ier and cheaper to buy li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance.

Be­zos was mind­ful of the safety is­sues, telling “60 Min­utes” back in 2013, “This thing can’t land on some­body’s head while they’re walk­ing around their neigh­bor­hood.”

That didn’t stop him from pre­dict­ing that drones fed with GPS co­or­di­nates would be tak­ing off and mak­ing de­liv­er­ies in “four, five years. I think so. It will work, and it will hap­pen.”

To Perl­man, the bil­lion­aire’s op­ti­mism made per­fect sense.

“When you’re in his world you think more about tech­nol­ogy than reg­u­la­tions, and the (drone) tech­nol­ogy is there,” Perl­man said.

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