Amazon to test drones: should manufacturers be excited?

Online shopping giant, Amazon, has been given the green light to begin test flights of piloted delivery drones.

The approval for the test flights was given by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which stipulated that tests must be conducted in daylight hours and only up to an altitude of 400 feet.

The approval is a major step for Amazon, which hopes to use drones to deliver small packages right to people’s doorsteps.

Amazon has been granted an experimental airworthiness certificate that allows for research and development flights. But the current testing approval is only for piloted drones, where the pilots have a private pilot’s licence and the drones must remain within the pilot’s field of vision.

To realise its dream of a future where its deliveries are fully automated using autonomous drones, Amazon will have to work hard to convince the FAA that its aircraft can navigate safely to avoid trees, buildings, people and other objects.

Drones in other industries

As well as helping deliver goods for companies such as Amazon, the testing approval will provide encouragement for other industries that are also looking to incorporate drones into working life.

The agricultural sector, for instance, has been earmarked as a likely candidate for future drone use due to the vast expanses that farmers must cover but also the largely unused airspace above rural properties. Some of the potential uses of drones in agriculture include: the creation of aerial maps to optimise water and fertilizer distribution; the application fertilizer to crops; crop dusting; or even for the delivery of spare parts to farmers with equipment emergencies.

And further drone applications are currently being investigated for warehousing.

Dutch-based material-handling company Qimarox is studying the use of drones for picking goods off shelves and assembling them into pallet loads inside a warehouse (see video below).

And it is these applications, which will operate within confined working spaces, that may actually receive earlier approval due to a reduced public risk.

According to Sean Cassidy, vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, US Congress has ordered the FAA to let more drones start flying by September 30, 2015.

So, while companies like Amazon are likely to find themselves on a long road to regulatory approval, others with more specific applications inside warehouses or on rural properties, may find approval much easier to achieve. Perhaps then it might just be manufacturers or farmers, rather than online retailers, that find themselves at the forefront of this burgeoning industry.