As a technologist I, like many others, was excited to hear about Amazon’s plan to make deliveries directly to you via air drones. Although Jeff Bezos is hoping to get “Prime Air” off the ground by 2015 the reality is that it won’t be feasible until at least 2025. As excited as I was, reality, unfortunately, set in quickly. Forget technology, although there are some issues there, the delay will come from regulatory impediments. Yesterday’s city council meeting unwittingly showed us why Amazon’s drone delivery is at least a decade away from reality.
Yes, I know, of course El Paso City Council is likely the governmental entity to put a kibosh on drone delivery. No, not exactly and to be perfectly clear Amazon drone delivery was not on the El Paso agenda. However what was on the agenda clearly demonstrated why drone delivery is at least a decade away in the United States.
The “last mile”
That’s the problem faced by companies delivering goods to people. For the most part, we have become very adept at moving goods across the globe efficiently from origin to a “hub” close to the final delivery point. What the supply chain is constantly wrestling with is what is referred to as the “last mile”.
Yesterday city council tackled a temporary solution to the “last mile” dilemma on item six on the agenda calling for “authorizing the limited operation of golf carts on public streets” for the holiday season. According to the public discussion this item, which was adopted by city council, allows delivery companies such as Federal Express or UPS to use golf carts on residential streets to make holiday deliveries. Although not specifically approved for UPS, the item was requested by UPS for their holiday delivery crunch.
According to the public discussion, UPS would deliver golf carts, along with packages to a private individual’s garage or some other staging area in a neighborhood and the UPS delivery person would use a golf cart to deliver packages to the individual houses. This is the “last mile” issue, making the final delivery as efficient as possible; i.e. timely and economical.
By now, I’m sure you are wondering what drones have to do with golf carts.
Yesterday’s city council action demonstrated that bureaucracy is not setup or efficient enough to allow for the implementation of new systems to resolve a problem. In this it was because the State of Texas does not have a mechanism in place, according to the presentation by staff, to license golf carts for use on city roads. Instead, the city had to amend part of its traffic ordinance to allow UPS to use the golf carts. What city council passed yesterday was a very limited authorization allowing for delivery companies to use golf carts for the delivery of packages.
What this did, in essence, is to create a loophole in the existing laws to allow for the use of golf carts. As simple as this was at the municipality level, keep in mind that what city council voted on yesterday is only applicable within the city limits, the issue for delivery drones is much more complicated than golf carts.
Presumably the drones, in order to be cost effective, would have to traverse not only neighborhoods but also county lines and possibly state lines. Even if the myriad of local regulatory agencies could somehow be convinced to work together in allowing the use of drones the federal government would have to be convinced to allow it in order for the drones to traverse state lines. However, more importantly the FAA would have to create the necessary regulations to allow for drone flights.
Anyone who has kept up with the FAA’s attempt at allowing the onboard use of telephones will instantly understand how getting the FAA to allow drone flights is not two, three or even five years away. It is at least a decade away even if the federal, state and local government would suddenly agree on drone deliveries.
Some of you are probably wondering about the technology. The fact is that there are still limitations to the drone delivery technology. These range from the reliability of the vehicle to the fact that battery technology is still substandard at best. The cost to implement drone delivery will not be cost effective until the drones are capable of continues operations measured in miles and hours. However, as can be seen by the technological advances in the last five years, I believe that efficient drone vehicles are attainable in the near future. Therefore technology is not the stumbling block.
The bureaucracy that would involve itself in regulating drone deliveries is many years away and therefore actual efficient and effective drone delivery is at least a decade away.. Keep in mind that I haven’t even brought up the issue of legal liability with the use of aerial drones. Therefore as exciting as the notion that Amazon would soon be deploying fleets of drones to deliver your Christmas products the fact is that it can’t happen until 2025 at the earliest.