Amazon Prime Air Zips Through British Countryside

Amazon on Wednesday announced that it had completed its first drone delivery in the UK. During the private customer trial period, packages of up to 5 pounds will be delivered within half an hour.

The first live delivery took place a week ago, when a highly automated drone delivered a bag of popcorn and an Amazon Fire TV to a customer near Cambridge. It took 13 minutes from the time the customer clicked the order for it to arrive.

First-ever #AmazonPrimeAir customer delivery is in the books. 13 min-click to delivery. Check out the video: https://t.co/Xl8HiQMA1S pic.twitter.com/5HGsmHvPlE

— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) December 14, 2016

So far, only two customers are participating in the trial. Amazon next will expand it to include dozens of customers who live within a few miles of the facility, and then take it further to accommodate hundreds more, it said. Customers will be able to order during daylight hours, seven days a week, depending on the weather.

Trial Run

Amazon this summer announced that the UK government had given it approval to conduct specific tests: beyond line-of-sight operations in suburban and rural areas; sensor performance in terms of sense and avoid; and one person operating multiple highly automated drones.

“At the moment, all efforts are in an experimental stage, so I do not think they will have a very large impact on the retail e-commerce market immediately,” Stelios Kotakis, a senior analyst for data transmission and managed services at IHS Markit, told the E-Commerce Times.

By the year 2020, more than 300,000 drones will be shipped for retail use, IHS has projected.

The commercial aviation space is not as complex in the UK as it is in the U.S. There are dozens of major commercial airports across America, and considering its history of aviation-related security issues, management of commercial drones is much more challenging.

If and when they are approved for flight, it’s not clear that drones will make a huge impact on the retail space in the U.S.

“This has been an Amazon notion more than anything,” said Michael Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

“We expect it to have minimal impact on retail e-commerce,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

There are lingering concerns about safety and liability that could prevent drones from achieving widespread adoption.

The Federal Aviation Administration this summer began to require drone owners to register vehicles that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds, as several safety incidents have occurred with drones flying into commercial airspace or other restricted areas.

Amazon has sought permission to fly commercial drones for delivery in the U.S. to reduce its distribution costs, and to become less dependent on outside delivery services — like the U.S. Post Office, FedEx and UPS — to meet its customers’ heavy demand for deliveries during the holiday season.

Putting Out Feelers

Walmart, a traditional big box retailer with an e-commerce arm, last year formally asked federal regulators for permission to test drone delivery. This summer, 7-Eleven conducted the first-ever fully autonomous drone delivery in the U.S.

The successful launch of a commercial drone delivery in the UK is an important milestone for the industry, and it will help make the business case that drone delivery can work in the U.S., said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition.

“What we’ve seen in the announcement,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “is just an incredible step forward from companies that are innovating in this space.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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