Amazon Prime Air – Drone Delivery – PR stunt or Reality?

amazon prime airSo, Christmas is just around the corner and the Amazon machine has churned out its’ favourite PR piece for generating a buzz and lots of inbound traffic, “Drone Delivery” – but is it really just a PR stunt this time around, or are we truly on the verge of a new age in delivery?

Amazon first announced its intention to deliver using drones in 2013, in America, just before Christmas and the internet exploded . . . Links to their site, amazon searches, and shopping traffic all boosted hugely, delivering them a bumper Christmas season.

At the time, the more cynical digital marketers and tech geeks among us all scoffed and called it out for it what it was – a pipe dream PR stunt released at just the right time to capture the media and public’s interest before the Christmas peak, and we called Jeff Bezos’s suggested timeline of “Deliveries by drone by 2018” at best “hugely optimistic”.

2014 and 2015 saw further updates on Amazon Prime Air’s progress, again released just before Christmas, and again the US and UK media lapped it up and served Amazon Drone delivery to content hungry consumers, boosting impressions, searches and revenue during peak season, but the content and updates had changed. Progress was being made and the 2015 video saw Jeremy Clarkson demonstrating a real world scenario with mock website interfaces and a tangibly more believable offering . . . perhaps this wasn’t just a PR stunt after all?

So here we are, in 2016, the lead up to Christmas, and its Amazon drone delivery PR season again. The news is full of it and this time there’s a twist – the first real life test of Amazon Prime Air’s drone delivery service has been successfully completed and Amazon Prime Air is open for business! On the 7th of December an Amazon Prime Air drone delivered a TV streaming stick and a bag of popcorn directly to the garden of a nearby customer in Cambridge, UK.

“Awesome!” I hear you cry, “let’s get off this article and hit Amazon, it’s time to order some stuff for drone delivery” but, and I really am sorry to burst your bubble, “open for business” at this stage means “a beta trial is available to two customers, with huge gardens, who live close to the depot, and want items that weigh less than 2.6kg” – bummer.

But it’s a start right? And like all big ideas it takes proof of concept to draw attention and make them a reality, so now to the big questions “is drone delivery a reality now? Will it ever be? And if so when?” to answer that, let’s start with where Amazon Prime Air is now, visit some of the barriers to progress, and draw a conclusion so you feel that reading this in your coffee break was worthwhile. . .

Amazon Prime Air Drone Delivery Now – the facts:

  • Maximum Order Weight: 5.7lbs or 2.6kg
  • Delivery Range: 7.5 miles
  • First test delivery time: 13 minutes
  • Targeted delivery time: under 30 minutes
  • Flight altitude: under 400ft or 120m
  • Drone Control: Autonomous using GPS and “sense and avoid” technology
  • Number of eligible customers: 2

The current set up sees a drone loaded in the Cambridge Depot warehouse before taxying down an automated runway and taking off. The drone then flies to the delivery location at just under 400ft before spotting its landing zone (the garden with an Amazon Prime Air landing pad in it) and descending to deliver the package – all looks pretty plausible, so what’s the catch and why isn’t available to more of us now?

Drone Delivery – the barriers:

  • Weather
    • Sorry it’s raining/windy/snowing/dark/all of the above so Amazon Prime Air is offline – the delivery drones cannot fly at night and simply cannot handle adverse weather conditions right now so this is a limiting factor – luckily in the UK the weather is always bang on so no worries!
  • CAA and Air Traffic Control Concerns
    • Unmanned aircraft everywhere? I’ve just quit paragliding, What about airplanes? Airports? Controlled airspace? Amazon have some pretty big barriers to cross in order to get wide-spread approval from the Civil Aviation Authority and even then there are far reaching implications – just how many other companies will also want to operate drones if Amazon get approval? How is it all going to work and who will be at risk?
  • Range
    • Battery and drone technology currently give Amazon Prime Air a 15 miles flight range meaning deliveries within a 7.5 miles radius are the max (they have to get there and back). The ecommerce model Amazon has thrived on is based upon large, ultra-efficient hubs in low cost locations, not drone delivery depots every 7.5 miles so something has to seriously change here for drone delivery to become a mass reality.
  • Not got a garden?
    • Live in an apartment or block of flats? Live in a densely populated area? Have a small garden with obstacles? All of the above are deal breakers currently and no obvious solution is on the horizon.
  • Security
    • Got an air rifle and fancy someone else’s delivery? See a drone heading in to land and fancy your chances? Security remains a big concern and some serious work is going to have to go into ensuring drone deliveries offer the same or better security than the existing courier network.
  • Safety
    • The reality is that drones, like all aircraft, are machines with fast moving parts and the potential to drop out of the sky, on top of this they’re planning to land in your garden where your pets, kids, and possibly you reside. Amazon have been extremely unambiguous in saying that safety is their number 1 priority and that Amazon Prime Air will not be available on mass until safe operation can be guaranteed – this is going to take some time.

So it’s not quite here yet is it? But, in the age we live in, technology progresses fast and money talks, so perhaps the biggest news to pay attention to in this latest update is its effect on consumer expectations and demand. Where there’s a demand and people willing to pay for it, companies invest, and the more attention this idea gets the more consumer demand there will be – it’s pretty cool right?

On top of this Amazon has some big investment behind their Prime Air offering and is clearly taking the possibility of drone delivery being a reality in the not-too-distant future very seriously. They’ve proposed a new Airspace model for the Safe Integration of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems to get around the current ruling preventing drones flying beyond line of site (10 miles) and plan to roll their current beta trail out to hundreds of customers in the Cambridge area in the coming weeks and months.

Conclusion:

I promised one so here it is . . . No, Yes and I don’t know.

In answer to the big questions above “is drone delivery a reality now? Will it ever be? And if so when?”

No – because it’s in a beta trial and clearly has some big hurdles to jump and a long way to go. In that regard this latest update still has an element of the old “PR before Christmas to boost sales” approach about it, but it’s certainly more tangible than ever and an autonomous delivery by drone has really been made.

Yes – because there has been proof of concept and the idea is out in the public domain. There’s always a demand for progress and we all love a technical innovation, so, in my humble opinion we’re now on an inexorable march to the presence of drone delivery in our lives and the real question is when will it arrive and just how much delivery market share will it take?

I don’t know – because some of the barriers above are pretty big deal breakers with serious consequences if fallen foul of and far reaching implications if solved. If I were a betting man (I’m not) then I’d be backing Amazon on their original 2018 suggested timeline for a publically available drone delivery service, and I, for one, am looking forward to keeping a close eye on progress throughout 2017.

In the meantime, we at Priory Direct, will continue to focus on supplying the packaging and labels needed for ecommerce on time and on budget for all of our customers, and will put our research and development team to work on lightweight, drone-friendly packaging right away!

Source [Josh Pitman, Marketing Manager from Priory Direct]