Amazon Prime Air is the name of Amazon’s new drone delivery service. That’s right, it’s officially underway. I never though they would pull it off, but Amazon made their first delivery of a package by air drone delivery. It was delivered in December 2016 to a customer in Cambridge, England, which Wikipedia says is a “university city”, about 50 miles north of London.
It is reported that the delivery took 13 minutes. Amazon says it has Prime Air facilities in the U.S., Israel, U.K., and Austria – that’s where Arnold Schwarzenegger is from.
As can be seen by the photo above, Amazon’s drone is obviously much more expensive, and larger, than even the most expensive drones you might find on this site.
Amazon is trying out their air delivery service with just 2 customers, but says it plans to expand that number in the coming months. The Prime Air service is only for packages that weigh less than 5 pounds, but it appears there are thousands of items that meet that criteria.
A Giant Mothership in the Sky
Amazon received a patent in April of 2016 for a giant flying warehouse in the sky. You read that right. This will be an “airborne fulfillment center” stocked full of products. It will be an airship or a blimp that floats in the sky at an altitude of about 45,000 feet. I wonder how many employees will be up there?
The idea is to have drones launch from these warehouse blimps and deliver packages. One use Amazon suggests is to use them at football games. A blimp could have an advertising board on the side so spectators could see what’s available to order. People would place orders of merchandise or food, and a drone descends down within minutes to deliver the goods.
Amazon does have the patent, but aviation authorities would have to approve the whole idea.
Amazon also received an anti-hacking patent. The patent covers “countermeasures of threats to an uncrewed autonomous vehicle.”
They think that a malicious person could jam drone signals which could cause the drone to crash. The patent describes the technology of a “mesh network”. Different drones communicate with one another, and the patent filing says “disagreement between data generated by the first UAV with external data from the second UAV may result in the determination that the first UAV is compromised.” (UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle).
The patent also talks about things like “spread spectrum” and frequency hoping”. The graphic image on the right, from Amazon’s patent, shows the mesh network and how it can be used to prevent hacking.
There is a strange irony to all this. The U.S. government, as well as some foreign government aviation authorities, are looking at technology to take down drones by jamming their signal. The governments want to be able to stop drones in restricted airspace, or drones that pose a threat to civilians or the military. A company called Battelle makes a device that looks like a rifle with an antenna on it, that jams drone signals.
At the same time, the FCC prohibits any operation, sale, or marketing of jamming equipment, and there are fines and imprisonment for violators.
As of the date of this blog post, the latest information I’ve found is that the FAA has not approved drone use in the U.S. for package delivery. The rules also say that drones must weigh less than 55 pounds. Amazon’s drone pictured at the top of this post appears to weigh a lot more than that. Drones must also be in visual line of site of the pilot. I don’t see how this is possible, if they are used for package delivery. How can a pilot be in line of site from the entire time every drone leaves a warehouse, to the time it reaches a customers’s location? Also, drones have to be flown below 400 feet, only during the day, and at least five miles from airports.
It’s been reported than Amazon got most of the online holiday sales, by a long shot. They had 36.9 % of sales. The closest competitor, Best Buy, had a measly 3.9%. However Amazon is spending a lot of it’s profits on technology like these drones, which I know must be super expensive.
There are a lot more companies and industries that want to use drones, not only for package delivery, but many other uses. It’s been reported that Walmart and Google are testing drones for deliveries. Here are some other industries that have used and/or want to make more use of them:
- Real Estate companies want to use them to take aerial photos, especially of large estates.
- The news media. I can see big invasion of privacy issues here. Whereas they now use helicopters, I can see multiple media sources trying to take low altitude footage using drones.
- Sports photography
- Wildlife photography and research
- Drones have already been used for search and rescue, missing persons, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters.
- Utility companies looking for downed power lines
- Land surveyors and map makers
- Crop inspections by farmers
- Firefighting, police, and emergency response
Some sources, and even the FAA, are saying that hundreds of thousands of drones could be in the air. I think things could get out of control long before that. There could be so many people flying drones for “commercial” uses, that hobbyists would no longer be able to get much enjoyment from RC helicopters, for fear of crashing into another aircraft. I also see a lot of other problems and catastrophies occuring with even a few thousand “unmanned aerial vehicles” in the air. Especially when considering that many of the “pilots” won’t have very good flying skills or much experience. The poor birds won’t know what to think about all the strange flying objects. It will be interesting to see how the FAA and society continues to deal with this issue in the future.