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Drone Test in Australia Finds Issues, while Amazon Going Full Speed Ahead

 

Drone Noise is Key Barrier to Community Acceptance, While Amazon Writes Letter to FAA Asking for Exemptions

Aug. 7, 2019
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Commercial delivery drones are right around the corner. Commercially delivery drones are years away from reality.

Right now, either scenario could be the case.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

The drones will find the delivery area by looking for a "unique marker," descend to a "delivery height," hover and drop the package provided nothing gets in the way.


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The dynamic brought into relief by a new report from state-level regulators in the Australian capital of Canberra, after a significant test of drone deliveries by Wing, the drone division of Alphabet Inc., also the parent company of Google.

The good news for drone proponents: safety appears not to be a real concern, and many consumers did enjoy the convenience of drone deliveries.

But other issues did gain the attention of regulators and legislators. That included concerns about lack of clear rules relative to the ability of drones to take high quality images of homes and activities from the air. Another issue was the amount of noise drones make as they perform their deliveries. There was also concerns about the possible impact of drone flights on local wildlife.

Although other studies have addressed many of these same and other challenges for drone delivery, the report from Australia is more valuable because it analyzed the results of an actual pilot program, Reggie Govan, a former chief counsel at the US Federal Aviation Administration, told the Wall Street Journal.

The report's conclusions are "equally applicable to the United States, which has yet to develop an appropriate regulatory framework to resolve those issues," Govan added.

The Wing trial actually concluded in February, and involved a relatively small number of deliveries, averaging 22 per day, though their busiest day saw 85 deliveries. The average duration, from one of the test consumers placing an order to receipt of goods from the drone, was 7 minutes and 36 seconds.

Of that total time, the actual flight component was just about three minutes. For the test, items for received orders were placed in shipping cartons in a field near the neighborhood. It is not clear the average travel distance for the drone flight it sounds short.

The drones flew without human direction using GPS, but also carried a low-resolution backup cameras in case of a GPS inaccuracy or failure, according to Wing's submission to the committee.


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The concerns relative to the drones capturing photos was not related to anything that happened during the test. Rather, the tests simply highlighted to the report writers that existing rules covering privacy were not adequate.

The report found that noise is for now the largest concern relative to community acceptance of drone-deliveries. Wing, in fact, has developed a quieter drone to address the issue, which does reduce the noise significantly. But the report says even with the new technology the noise factor could lead to community rejection of drones.

With that context, also news last week that Amazon sent a letter to federal regulators in July seeking the OK to fly delivery drones to consumers' homes in "sparsely populated" regions of the United States.

According to the Washington [state] Business Journal, Amazon is asking the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration for several exemptions from federal law and regulations. Top on its list, Amazon seeks permission to fly Prime Air drones for package delivery before receiving an "airworthiness certificate."

Under updated FAA rules, the Secretary of Transportation is allowed to make such an exemption.

The 29-page letter provides details on the capabilities and limitations of Amazon's latest drone – the MK27 - that would be used for the testing exception being requested. In fact, while human operators will monitor flights and can order the drone to return at any point during a shipment, Amazon says the drone software will use "fail-safe logic" to make decisions that Amazon employees can't override in case of any emergency safety issues.

"Prime Air is confident our autonomous systems will achieve demonstrable levels of safety and reliability equivalent to operations that currently rely on certificated airmen with manned flight experience," the letter reads.

Amazon says it could start making drone deliveries within a few months of receiving the exemptions.

In the letter to the government, Sean Cassidy, Amazon Prime Air's director of safety and regulatory affairs, said permitting Amazon to deliver packages with the MK27 drone "would be in the public interest." That's because drones will someday reduce long-term wear on roads, decrease the environmental impact caused by parcel deliveries, and further advance unmanned aircraft technology for US advantage.

Amazon told the regulators that the drones would deliver packages within 30 minutes after the customer places the order, but only to Prime customers about 8.5 miles away from the Amazon fulfillment center that would deployed it - a round trip of 15 nautical miles.

The letter did not identify what area or areas would be used for the drone tests.

 

Amazon Provided Drone Network Graphic as Part of Its Letter to the FAA

 

Amazon added that initial flights will still be overseen by a company operator with an FAA airman certificate and a class III medical certificate. Amazon also says it can command the drone to return to base at any point during the flight.

Amazon thinks the human operators eventually won't be needed, as the drones will be able to maneuver around flying objects using onboard sensors. MK27 can even land itself in the event of communication loss, Cassidy wrote.

Interestingly, the MK27 won't actually land when making deliveries. Instead, the drones will find the delivery area by looking for a "unique marker," descend to a "delivery height," hover and drop the package provided nothing gets in the way.

But if someone or something gets into the drop zone, the nearly 88-pound drone could leave without delivering the package. Amazon describes this as its "fail-safe logic."

The full Amazon letter requesting the exemptions can be found here: Amazon Prime Air - Exemption Rulemaking

 

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