Amazon has had made its first ever commercial drone delivery. And while its Prime Air setup is barely little more than a stunt, it is now at least a stunt that demonstrates the technology could finally be of some use.
At MIT Technology Review, we’ve been skeptical of some drone delivery experiments in the past—because, currently, they can amount to little more than gimmicks. Limited battery life and payload capacity mean that something about the size and weight of a burrito is the upper limit of what they can deliver.
Amazon’s first ever drone delivery, made December 7 and announced today, wasn’t much better in terms of what it could carry. It ferried an Amazon Fire TV stick, a small and slender gadget, and a bag of popcorn to its first lucky customer. At the moment, in fact, the trial only serves a total of two beta users. No, that’s not a typo.
And yet, the news is compelling.
It’s certainly been a long time coming. It’s almost exactly three years since Jeff Bezos appeared on 60 Minutes to announce that his business was hoping to use drones to deliver packages. Things have gotten in the way of the plans—notably regulation. New rules from the Federal Aviation Administration meant to open up the air for commercial drone flights didn’t help Amazon, because it needs its drones to fly outside an operator’s line of sight.
So Bezos signed a deal with the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority to test the technology there instead.
At a test site just outside Cambridge, U.K., Amazon has built a small fulfillment center with a drone launchpad. An order weighing up to five pounds can be packed into the drone, which then finds its way to a customer’s house autonomously using GPS, always flying below 400 feet.
It only serves two nearby customers now, which clearly makes it a promotional stunt rather than a real delivery method. But it claims that it will increase that number to a few dozen before long, and later to hundreds. Ultimately, of course, it envisages skies thick with the small aircraft.
Though customers will only be able to order from a small selection of light and compact products, the company’s small fulfillment center lends the project legitimacy because it will offer real products that people do buy. Along with Zipline’s trials in Rwanda, where the aircraft are shuttling supplies of blood and drugs to remote health-care centers, Amazon’s drone delivery shows that autonomous aerial shipment isn’t totally ridiculous.
That said, there will continue to be barriers to scaling up. Shipping small products is fine, but has obvious limitations that can only be overcome if drones improve in performance and battery life. And those regulatory issues may have been brushed aside in a quiet part of rural England, but they remain elsewhere.
For now, though, Amazon's first consumer drone delivery, three years in the making, is a demonstration that a future filled with packages from the sky isn't quite as distant as it may have seemed.
(Read more: Amazon, TechCrunch, “U.K. Signs a Deal with Amazon to Test Delivery Drones,” “Why Rwanda Is Going to Get the World’s First Network of Delivery Drones,” “Amazon Lays Out Its Vision for a Sky Thronging with Delivery Drones”)