Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson recently explained a new prototype for Amazon's fabled Prime Air drone delivery service. The garish, package-pooping aircraft looks futuristic, but it's probably not going to bring you new shoes anytime soon. It can't.
It's just marketing. We've said it before, and we'll say it again. The Amazon drone program amounts to good, old-fashioned (however innovative) stunt marketing. Their initial announcement dropped just after Black Friday two years ago and lined up nicely with America's holiday shopping season.
Not surprisingly, this year's promos for Prime Air came in the middle of a massive ad campaign to promote its Amazon Prime Now service that offers one-hour delivery of select products in select US cities. That's a bonkers idea, but Amazon is actually doing it right, um, now.
Two years in, Prime Air is confined to YouTube videos of prototypes, press releases, and a very vague patent. The latest commercial features the very famous Jeremy Clarkson who's about to release his own show on Amazon Prime Video. So Prime Air has become a double-edged advertising sword. Not only does Amazon get to market its super fast delivery research; it also gets to market its new incarnation of Top Gear, a show about vehicles. It's more likely that Amazon wants you to watch its new show than expect to use its delivery drones in the coming year.
Amazon isn't alone in pimping its drones before they can actually take off. Google released an ad for its Project Wing service over a year ago, showing off its own futuristic aircraft delivering dog food to a very overwhelmed-looking man in Australia. Even then, Google admitted that its prototype was "years away" from becoming an actual service. The same holds true for Amazon and everyone else for a few very relevant reasons.
US Regulations won't allow it. The fact that Amazon is using aspirational drone delivery to market its services isn't the only reason why the concept isn't viable right now. According to the latest drafts of rules, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wouldn't allow the shiny new Amazon delivery drone prototype to take to the sky. The key detail is that the FAA requires commercial drones to remain "within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer." Amazon is working with the FAA on updating the rules, but it's unclear if the company's experimental airworthiness certificate would even apply to this new prototype. Other companies developing drone delivery programs face the same obstacles.
The technology isn't quite there, yet. Amazon doesn't say how heavy a payload its new drones can handle. (The aircraft itself is 25kg.) However, judging by the size of the box in the commercial, it won't be able to carry anything larger than a shoe box. This limitation is very real since even the most advanced battery-powered drones currently being used for commercial purposes can only carry a kilogram or two.
The distances don't make sense, either. Heavier payloads equal shorter flight times since more power is required to lift the package. Amazon is now promising delivery in 30 minutes or less in the US, but that also means the drone's initial range is only about 16km. You'll need to live within 16km of an Amazon fulfillment center in order to enjoy the service. You could probably drive there and back in less than 30 minutes.
Landing is a problem. If you live in a city or even a slightly wooded area, a whole host of proposed delivery drones, including Amazon's new drone prototype, would probably crash land. Drones don't get along with trees or tall buildings so it would be tough for the aircraft to make its way to the ground. Google came up with a solution that involves a winch sending the package down to the ground on a tether. Again, Google admits that it's many years away from delivery anything via drone.
Air traffic control doesn't exist at low altitude. Amazon says, "One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road." It's hard to envision this future happening any time in the next decade. Drones are only permitted to fly under 122m, and the latest system for airspace class doesn't regulate that space. So we'd need a new system for ensuring these drones don't run into each other all the time. Even though the new Amazon drones have sense-and-avoid features, the technology remains untested in busy skies.
People don't like drones. Do you really want Amazon drones flying over your house? They're loud and weird and may or may not have a camera trained on your window. Or at least that's what many people will think. People tend to associate drones with either death machines in Afghanistan or tools for creepy bros taking aerial bikini pics on the beach. It's not immediately clear that people actually want drones delivering their dog food. Do you?
Images via Amazon.