The fanfare announcement by Amazon that they have recently made their first successful delivery by drone to a customer in the UK, whilst it provided valuable pre-Christmas publicity for Amazon and its Prime Air delivery service, should not be allowed to hide some serious issues concerning the overall viability of large scale drone deliveries and the public acceptance factor of such delivery services.
Amazon claim that this first delivery was achieved within 30 minutes from the purchaser’s click to the package being delivered at their home. A heavily choreographed positive-message video was released showing the delivery being made. Even with this carefully scripted video however it was possible to see obvious pointers to the thorny issues that are likely to be prevalent where drones are used as delivery vehicles. For much of 2016 Amazon have been conducting drone delivery research from an isolated rural location near Cambridge, and the video of the delivery being made on December 7th highlights the rural nature of the general locality, but also contains footage of the drone flying over houses and following the route of a road below it.
Whilst Amazon for the purposes of their Cambridge research have permission from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones beyond line of sight of the drone operator, and given the law on trespass and nuisance in respect to aircraft in the UK, it would prove challenging for anyone to bring a successful legal action against Amazon, the fact remains that some people, perhaps many, will not be happy having the airspace above their homes used as a road in the sky. Furthermore, there are safety concerns, including how distracting it may be for drivers to have autonomous drones flying above and across roads? If distraction accidents occur who will be legally responsible? Such issues need addressing, but unfortunately with Amazon’s beyond line of sight drone delivery programme there appears a void.
The Cambridge drone research programme had already earlier in the year attracted some significant criticism from a local group of conservation volunteers, the Friends of the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke, who voiced strong concerns over the impact of drone activity on wildlife and the tranquillity of the area they work to preserve. The voluntary group only became aware of Amazon’s drone delivery programme when they were approached by the media for their comments on the programme.
The Civil Aviation Authority have following an FOI request recently published on their website the email correspondence between themselves and Amazon, going back over two years to 2014 when Amazon first approached the CAA about the possibility of conducting drone delivery research in the UK. Included within that email correspondence is a very telling email dated the 28th July 2014 from an Amazon employee to the CAA, which states that if Amazon do decide to start testing in the UK (which of course they subsequently were allowed to do), that they would discuss further with the CAA how to tackle the issue of public perception.
Unfortunately, other than a somewhat belated invitation to some local Cambridge schoolchildren to visit the Amazon laboratory in Cambridge, there appears to have been no obvious attempt to engage with the wider Cambridge public on the use of drones for delivery purposes, and it may be asked that if Amazon truly envisage drone deliveries to be a viable commercial proposition, whether they have actually taken the view that so long as they are seen as acting within the law, then public perceptions can be left to others to address. If this is the case, then this attitude points to an arrogant corporatist approach, and it does great dis-service to the drone industry as a whole, in which many have been working to engage with the wider public to highlight the value for society of drone technology.