Fifteen months on from their initial ‘launch’ announcement, Amazon is rumoured to be investigating starting trials of its drone delivery service right here in the British Isles after being hampered in its native US by stringent regulations. And once again, the online platform tops the news agenda, splitting expert opinion as to whether or not commercial drones could one day become reality.
Having strategically revealed their plans the night before ‘Cyber Monday’ 2013 however (the biggest e-commerce shopping day of the year), the sceptic in me wonders why this clearly headline-grabbing hoax – one that has been done many times before I might add – hasn’t withered away into white noise already. When you start taking potential risks and limitations into account, it becomes clear that any company honestly looking to take up the challenge of commercial drone usage will be up against a mountain of regulatory hurdles before anyone even utters the words ‘lift off’.
But of course, the weight of the Amazon name alone is a force to be reckoned with and where others would have moved on to other news, Amazon has achieved immortality by sparking a veritable technological revolution and a very real demand for something we never knew we wanted.
Think about it – before Amazon Prime Air, how many drone companies had you ever heard of? How many times had you heard of drone technology being used for anything but warfare? Now, less than two years on, there are 359 organisations with permits to use drones in the skies over Britain, along with what experts believe are thousands of home users tinkering away. We have ‘selfie’ drones raising millions on Kickstarter, waiter drones serving diners at swanky restaurants and several, newly established aerial photography businesses jumping on the bandwagon too. We’re even seeing our first trade shows emerging for commercial UAVs. The sector is in its infancy, and yet is already thought to be worth more than £100bn globally and predicted to employ 150,000 people in the EU alone by 2050.
That’s not to say drones are without controversy – crashing into journalists and coming into close contact with passenger planes certainly hasn’t done the sector any favours, and the confusion around what you can and can’t do with the machines has led to a number of innocent hobby pilots inadvertently breaking the law (for example, by flying over highly-populated areas and buildings without permission, or restricted airspace), some of whom now face fines and prosecution. But they now constantly feature in the press – and the more momentum the sector builds, the more reason for Amazon to keep the story going.
So, having placed its stake in the ground, whether, through meticulous planning or fortunate accident, Amazon is now going the distance and clearing the path for its flock to follow in its footsteps, determined to ensure drone technology finds its place in everyday life.
I can’t help but wonder if the PR who threw ‘drone delivery’ out in a brainstorm is laughing or crying right now, but either way, I’m intrigued to see how officials going forward will balance public safety with the pressures of innovation because what’s clear is that the can is well and truly open, so there’s no going back now.
Published, 30th March 2015