Amazon Prime Air - Does It Have Wings

14 April 2015



By Stephen A Chadwick 

Technology Editor 

I can't believe that in this day and age there are still companies out there, somehow still in business, which are unable to tell you a precise time that your parcel might arrive. Having to waste an entire day's holiday, pacing around the house, making endless cups of tea, nose pressed against the window every time something with a diesel engine goes past... 

I grant you it has got marginally better in the last decade. You can often select a morning or afternoon time slot, but in an age of bar codes and GPS tracking, where parcels are scanned at every possible point along the journey, any company involved in the delivery business should be able to provide an accurate window of when you're likely to get your stuff. I had to wait in on Tuesday for a car roof-mounted bicycle carrier. It was bought via amazon and I can track the thing up until the point it goes out for delivery with a courier, when I get an email that says: You will get a delivery from amazon tomorrow, the 7th April. You have up until 23:59 today to change this delivery date. Your delivery will arrive between 8am and 6pm. 

It's with all this in mind that I've been following the Amazon Prime Air developments with a keen interest. You may have seen the promotional video: A young lad needs a tool for his skateboard, the camera zooms in as he selects the Prime Air delivery option from the Amazon site on his Kindle tablet; cut to Amazon Fulfilment Centre where drones sit at the end of conveyer belts, rotors whirring, ready to whisk purchases off to waiting customers in a Tupperware lunchbox. The Prime Air drone zips across parks and lakes before landing on a spacious patio, depositing said skate tool much to the delight of toolneedy skateboarder and his younger brother. It's beautiful. I get goose bumps. Amazon's vision is that from purchase to delivery you're looking at 30 minutes. Yeah I know, I nearly wet myself as well. 

As I said, it's a promotional video. The director understandably went for the detached, rural property, with ample landing area, well away from overhead power cables and telephone lines as opposed to the slightly more challenging option of a 5th floor flat on some sinkhole estate, where the only landing spot is 3 square feet of balcony covered with washing line and where, in a car park below reeking of urine, drug addicts, petty thieves and truants armed with air rifles are trying to take out the drone before scuttling off to Cash Converters with their prize. 

The drones in testing are capable of carrying 5lbs or 2.26Kg of "cargo". That doesn't sound like an awful lot, but Amazon, as you would expect, have done their homework - they say that 86% of the orders they receive weigh less than that. The thing is, the plastic chair on my patio also weighs less than 2.26Kg, so does my duvet, but they're not going to fit in that lunch box. Dimensions come into play and I can't find any info on that. I'm not knocking the idea, or the company for that matter, this is after all, what trialling is all about, I just find the logistics of it all a bit... complicated. 

The drones currently only have a 10 mile (16km) maximum range. Amazon has 21 fulfilment centres in the whole of Europe. Europe covers approximately 4,000,000 square miles (10,000,000 km2) and drones could cover only 6500 square miles of that. That equals just 0.1625% of Europe. Slough is Amazon's closest fulfilment centre to central London, but is 20 miles (double the current range) outside the capital. If battery cell technology was developing at the same rate as Solid State Storage then this wouldn't be an issue. But as someone who changed their car battery at the weekend I can tell you that battery cell technology has made little progress in the last decade. 

So when you consider that less than 0.2% of Europe is covered, when you rule out delivering to apartments, when you exclude all the items that weigh less than 2,26Kg but won't fit in a lunchbox, what percentage of orders can you actually hope to fulfil with drones? What chaos will strong wind speeds cause, or flocks of birds, scaffolding, trigger happy air rifle owners, hang gliders, RC aeroplane enthusiasts, thieves? 

I hate to be a pessimist. I really do want Amazon Prime Air to be a thing, but it looks like drone deliveries are still a long, long way off, despite all the hype.