Amazon's logo

Amazon drones will make deliveries within months – how will this impact supply chains?

Airborne drones making deliveries has been theorised for years, but the technology has not been deemed reliable enough. However, it seems that autonomous delivery drones might transition from pie in the sky, to a fully-realised solution.

This comes after Amazon’s recent push to get Amazon Prime Air off the ground, with plans to start using their drones to make deliveries “within months”.

In this article, we’ll talk about Amazon Prime Air, its applications and the wider impacts that drone technology may have on the global supply chain.

What is Amazon Prime Air?

Amazon's delivery drone

Amazon Prime Air is a drone courier service that aims to improve Amazon’s delivery capabilities by providing their customers with faster deliveries, whilst reducing Amazon’s costs and carbon output.

They announced their plan for drone deliveries in 2013, when founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos stated that he expects to have drones making deliveries within five years. Clearly, Amazon has missed their initial target but have made a lot of progress over the past years; making their first ever drone delivery earlier this year in Cambridge (UK) – delivering an Amazon Fire TV stick with a bag of popcorn.

What technology has Amazon employed in its drones?

Amazon has used artificial intelligence (AI) in their drones, allowing them to autonomously cope with the real-world environment. This is crucial for avoiding obstacles and challenging weather conditions. By using AI, the drones will be able to make decisions on whether to delay deliveries, abort deliveries or to use evasive moves if they are faced with an obstacle. For existing unmanned drones, these kinds of decisions would have to be made by a remote pilot.

Another addition to the new Amazon drones is its hybrid design, demonstrated in this video. Put simply, the drone takes off and lands vertically, like a helicopter, but will then tilt horizontally like an aeroplane when in flight to improve its aerodynamics. By doing this their drones are more agile in the air.

Finally, Amazon has installed a vision positioning system which is designed to stabilise drones when they are flying or landing in windy conditions – as this has been the downfall of many drones previously.

To complement their drones, Amazon has designed a floating blimp docking station. This airship would, be loaded with drones and parcels and will be positioned above an area which is likely to receive a large number of orders, allowing the drones to be loaded and launched, descending to deliver customer orders. Amazon blimps would be especially useful for large-scale events such as a football match, as the blimps can be loaded with relevant stock and floated near the stadium, delivering the orders at the event within minutes.

The benefits of drone deliveries

Drone flying over forest

With most retailers these days already offering next-day and same-day delivery, it poses the question of whether we need drones making deliveries. A compelling case for drone deliveries centres around the improvements they can create for people living in rural areas, as they are capable of making drops faster than conventional transport options which can’t take the most direct route to their destination. Drones can deliver emergency drops for people in hard-to-reach areas who are in need of immediate medical care; as they are capable of flying over obstacles which would have been difficult for previous delivery transportation to cover.  The Lake Victoria Challenge has driven competition in drone development which will be used to make emergency deliveries.

Drone deliveries could also have a positive impact on the environment, as they will reduce the number of parcels being delivered by carbon-based vehicles, as drones use a lower energy-rate per mile than traditional engine vehicles and can be powered through solar/wind energy. However this is not a clear cut case, as in a study conducted about the environmental benefits of drone deliveries – it is suggested that drone deliveries could have a worse effect on the environment than current delivery methods, due to increase warehousing space and energy consumptions needed for the drones.

Reasons why drones won’t take off

While drones have many benefits, there is significant opposition to drone deliveries. According to research from Reuters, people are unhappy to have drones flying above their homes to make deliveries to their neighbours, as they see this as trespassing. This stems from people believing that they own the air space above their homes.

However, the law about the air space ownership of your property is vague, as the law states that it is anywhere between 80 and 500 feet. This means that there will need to be clearer legislation before drone deliveries are launched, to avoid a graveyard of poached drones.

In addition, there’s been concern around the noise drones make. Primarily, this would impact rural delivery drones as many residents may protest the use of drones due to the negative effect they could have on the surrounding natural beauty. Amazon’s video footage doesn’t include noise and they have not yet made a statement about this issue.

How are drones being used in supply chains?

Man flying a drone over a factory

The use of drone technology is being integrated into numerous supply chains, working to increase efficiency and reduce costs spent on labour.

An interesting adoption of drones is by mining organisations, as they are now using them to explore mines and retrieve data. The drones are sent into mines to inspect and gather 3D imagery which is used to inform decisions – whilst being faster and more cost-effective than the traditional methods of sourcing this data.

Farming and agriculture organisations are implementing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV’s) technology as a method of monitoring and sourcing visual data about crops yields; they also gather soil samples from various sites, which are testing for water and nutrition levels – informing the growers whether they need to increase water and fertiliser usage.

Walmart has begun testing inventory tracking drone technology in partnership with QR codes which enable the drones to take physical inventory counts. Furtherly, their drones are capable of moving small items quickly, reducing the need for forklifts and conveyor systems.

Do you want drone deliveries?

How do you feel about Amazon Prime Air? Are you happy to have drones flying from home-to-home? Let us know on Twitter and LinkedIn.