Amazon’s “Prime Air” service, which CEO Jeff Bezos first revealed the company was working on about two years ago, promises to deliver packages to your door within 30 minutes of your ordering them, using unmanned aerial vehicles—or as they’re better known, drones. On Sunday, the company released a video showing off a prototype of its new hybrid delivery drone, which can fly vertically like a helicopter and horizontally like a plane. The video touts the drone’s safety features, such as sensors that the company claims will avoid collisions with obstacles in the air It’s not clear yet whether these features will convince the Federal Aviation Administration, which, as the Guardian’s Ed Pilkington explains, has balked at allowing commercial drones to fly out of sight of their pilots:
The FAA continues to resist the idea that commercial drones like Amazon Prime Air should be allowed to operate beyond a pilot’s vision. Its draft regulations for commercial drone flights, released in February, do not permit flying beyond line of sight. That is a deal breaker for Amazon, which says that a delivery by drone system could only be feasible if its unmanned vehicles were allowed to operate semi-autonomously, within designated air corridors. Other governments have been notably more receptive to the idea of semi-autonomous drones. The UK’s equivalent of the FAA, the Civil Aviation Authority, has indicated it is open to the idea of delivery drones flying beyond line of sight.
If Amazon Prime Air can clear the regulatory hurdles, it will be a massive disruption to the package delivery business. However, delivery won’t be the only part of Amazon’s business operations where robots give the e-commerce giant a significant technological advantage. Alongside tens of thousands of human workers, Amazon’s vast network of “fulfillment centers” or warehouses employ over 15,000 robots made by a company called Kiva Systems, which Amazon bought in 2012. The competitive advantage Amazon enjoys from these warehouse bots may not last, however. Wired’s Davey Alba highlights a company that’s making similar robots to help smaller retailers compete on Amazon’s playing field:
Locus Robotics is an offshoot of Massachusetts-based Quiet Logistics, a third-party order fulfillment company that gets merchandise out the door for big apparel retailers like Zara, Gilt Groupe, and Bonobos. And the idea behind its bots isn’t just to replace humans, but to create a system where everyone can work together more efficiently. What most people don’t realize in the age of push-button shopping is the “shopping” part doesn’t disappear. You the consumer are no longer at the store doing the physical work of tracking down the thing you want. But somebody still has to do it. For e-commerce, that task typically falls to a worker at a distribution center who must locate the product, make sure it’s not damaged, and send it off to be packed and shipped. This can be grueling, tedious work. More than anything else, it’s about walking. Lots of walking. Locus aims to have its bots do the walking instead.
No doubt Bezos is aware of the competitors looking to chip away at his company’s lead in the robotic warehouse, and is looking at delivery drones as a way to stay ahead in a growing field of e-commerce companies. The other side of this story, of course, is that warehouse bots and delivery drones, like self-driving cars and other cutting-edge innovations in robotics, have major implications both for the number of workers retailers like Amazon will employ and the skill sets these jobs will require. Delivery workers and the companies that employ them are surely casting a wary eye on Amazon’s drone program.