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Drones for Ecommerce Delivery? Not So Fast.

WASHINGTON – You might expect the founder of a startup company that makes drones to effuse about the potential for unmanned vehicles to revolutionize the way ecommerce works.

Chris Anderson doesn’t see it that way.

Anderson, who heads the Berkeley, Calif.-based firm 3D Robotics, seemed to pour cold water on the idea of using drones for delivering goods bought online when he spoke via video link at the recent PostalVision 2020 conference.

At least for the near term, Anderson predicts, the commercially available drones that his company makes will likely remain expensive toys, in part because of Federal Aviation Administration restrictions.

“Right now … it’s mostly recreational use because that’s what’s allowed in the United States. Recreational use is essentially deregulated at a certain altitude, but commercial use is not,” Anderson said. “In the next few years, those regulations will change to allow the commercial use.”

But even once the rules ease up, there are significant technical obstacles that will have to be overcome before drones are used for door-to-door delivery, said Anderson, who describes himself as somewhere in between “conservative” and “wildly optimistic” in his views on the roles drones will play in the commercial space.

The potential to use drones in ecommerce grabbed headlines late last year when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appeared on “60 Minutes” to unveil the company’s hitherto secret Prime Air program – unmanned machines that would delivery packages to a customer’s doorstep within 30 minutes of the order being placed. Bezos acknowledged that FAA rules would keep Amazon’s drones grounded at least until next year, though the agency has suggested that it could be far longer before it finalizes the rules that would permit widespread commercial usage.

The announcement of Prime Air elicited a predictable chorus of “gee whiz” reactions from various media outlets, including an uncharacteristically credulous “60 Minutes.” But very quickly many observers began to question the feasibility of Amazon’s delivery drones. Some wondered about the limited delivery range, others raised questionsabout safety, and still others suggested that the “60 Minutes” piece – which aired on the eve of Cyber Monday – was a PR ploy by Amazon, a company with a well-earned reputation for stonewalling the press.

Anderson said that Amazon’s “octocopters” incorporate some of the technology that his company developed, though he does not share Bezos’ exuberance for autonomous home delivery.

The technical challenges of safely navigating around a residential neighborhood are formidable, Anderson said, suggesting that the more practical application of the technology would be in industrial settings, once the FAA permits it.

“I think that drone delivery in a business-to-business context – warehouse to warehouse – makes sense soon, possibly even today,” Anderson said.

“That all works in a very controlled context, which is safe commercial space to safe commercial space. Where it gets really hard is when you’re landing, when you’re flying around regular people. When you consider the complexity – not just the regulatory and risk, liability, but just the technical complexity of flying in a residential neighborhood where trees and dogs and telephones lines and birds and children and bushes – it’s crazy hard,” he added. “We just don’t know how to do that yet, to say nothing of how to do it safely. But flying from warehouse to warehouse in a purely, you know, private land, commercial space, we can do that right now.”

Kenneth Corbin on Linkedin
Kenneth Corbin
Kenneth Corbin
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn.