Close this search box.

Drones: delivering success or a flight of fancy (Part One)


On the opening morning of EDX 2015, this coming Wednesday (25 March), there will be a demo of a drone making a delivery. We’re running the demo as a competition to win an Apple Watch, thanks to our good friends at Scurri, the parcel shipping software platform. The discussion among members of the eDelivery team as to how the demo would run and why we were doing it, soon led to the decision to get some facts and opinions from our industry, and beyond. We wanted to cut through some of the drone noise and ask whether drones will have an important part to play or if they are the Google Glass of the delivery sector?
Amazon has been talking up its plans to use drones for deliveries for over a year, and there are trials now under way. These trials are set against a set of stringent regulations from the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) which include flying at below 400 feet, staying at least 500 feet away from anyone not directly involved in the trial, and a stipulation that the pilot (who has to be certified, by the way) remains within line of sight of the drone while it’s in the air. Only as recently as February, the FAA’s guidelines on drone flights seemed to be sounding the death knell for their use in the delivery sector, before the volte face which has allowed continuing trials to take place. If that seems like a bad case of mixed messages, it’s fairly typical of the way the regulatory world has to play catch up with new technology.

While the US allows for private citizens to use drones and for their limited commercial use, such as by estate agents capturing aerial shots of properties they are selling, in Europe, the use of drones by private individuals has already been causing problems – not just in the recent case of a failed attempt to smuggle items into Bedford Prison. Let’s start by considering some of the rules and regulations, and their fall out.

Breaking the law

In France, three journalists were arrested in Paris in February for flying a drone over the Bois de Boulogne. It’s an offence to fly an unlicensed drone in Parisian air space that could send you to prison for one year and land you with a €75,000 fine. Here in the UK, a 42 year old man from Nottingham has been summoned to appear at Westminster Magistrates Court next month in relation to a grand total of 17 alleged offences under the Air Navigation Order 2009. Those offences include flying a drone over several football grounds, the Palace of Westminster, and Buckingham Palace.

The skies above our heads, then, are well regulated. Which, of course, is no bad thing. No one wants to see a plane colliding with a drone after all; in 2009 a US Airways flight in New York suffered engine failure following a bird strike incident, prompting an emergency landing in the Hudson River. There isn’t a great deal of difference between birds and drones when it comes to size and weight.

Staying in control

Dr Arthur Richards of Bristol University’s Robotics Lab, is one of the UK’s foremost experts on drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). “Regulations and safety are of course issues; urban delivery would be quite illegal under current rules, which prohibit operation over densely populated areas,” he explains. “You’d also need a pilot with line of sight to your drone the whole time, which would dent the economic case significantly. However, it seems likely that rules will change over time to allow more flexible and autonomous operations – there are huge challenges in that, but they’ll be solved eventually.”

Nick McAleenan, of JMW Solicitors agrees the law may well have to change, but he sounds a note of caution about the obstacles to that change. “A lot of the concerns around drone use are to do with privacy, and this is an area that is pretty well regulated at the moment,” he says. “Convincing legislators, at some point in the future, that drones are safe will not be easy, and will require investments in development in the technology – they might have to be fitted with cameras and sensors, for example, to overcome the restrictions on them only being flown within sight of the operator.”

So it seems a fairly safe bet that the rules will change to accommodate the technology, but only once the technology has proved itself to be less of a calamity-waiting-to-happen.

The cost of autonomy

Warren Lester is an Engineering Product Manager at a company called Vicon. You might not have heard the name, but you’ll be familiar with what they do – their technology is used to create realistic motion-based effects, used in movies, video games, from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to Fifa 13, and more. Their technology is also being used in the development of autonomously controlled drones that are being tested for, and used in, many different commercial environments.

“The biggest issue is that before the government will allow UAVs to be used in public airspace they need controls systems on them that are equivalent to those on a manned version of the craft,” he explains, before going on to clarify that in this context ‘manned’ refers to the presence of a pilot with a control pad within sight of the drone itself.

Autonomous vehicles are those that are told to take off and go to specific destination, which might be a GPS location, or a heading, or a set of coordinates. But once it’s en route to its destination, there is no human intervention at all, whereas a manned vehicle might be remotely piloted, rather like the military aircraft used in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

While it’s going to be a lot easier to prove a manned drone can be flown safely, and within all the legal requirements, the cost implications of needing to have each flight accompanied by a pilot who is always in sight of the drone make this option extremely unlikely.

“It’s the autonomous vehicles that are of greatest interest to companies like Amazon,” Lester says. “I think it will be a long time before this comes to fruition because of the regulations. There needs to be a huge amount of time, money and effort invested in testing the control systems.”

But what does the carrier industry think? After all, if there is to be an airborne invasion, it’s the carriers that will see most of the action. In part two of this piece on delivery drones, we’ll hear the opinions of some key figures in the delivery sector and consider where drones might find their natural home.

Read More

Register for Newsletter

Group 4 Copy 3Created with Sketch.

Receive 3 newsletters per week

Group 3Created with Sketch.

Gain access to all Top500 research

Group 4Created with Sketch.

Personalise your experience on