TECH TALK: Amazon may have stumbled, but drone technology is expanding, says BILL MAGEE
Amazon’s products may be flying off the shelves at its Dunfermline “fulfilment centre” – as it labels the warehouse – and practically everywhere else on the planet, but arguably the most world’s most successful company has birled its much-touted drone delivery project into freefall. Despite having at its disposal apparently infinite resources, the £1 trillion ($1.5tn), online store just cannot seem to solve how to safely land an unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with that precious parcel.
A classic example of an organisation getting ahead of its innovative self, in particular its UAV project. “Prime Air” has been buzzing away for the last five years. However, according to wired.com it’s been in “constant churn” since 2019.
Now the UK end of the division is making 100 layoffs in its UK facility, principally in Cambridge, including the entire data analysis team. The Fife facility appears unaffected, one can even book a public tour to see a global powerhouse in action.
Amazon’s drones dilemma brings into sharp focus the future of what is, undoubtedly, a clever and smart piece of high-tech, but as IT guru pal Anthony remarked to me: “The thing about technology is it might not fly in the direction planned, but it will go somewhere”.
It’s time to redeem the drone’s reputation. There’s plenty of evidence that this particular piece of tech won’t fall by the digital wayside, like the heavily-marketed but commercially disappointing Google Glass specs.
Unfortunately, to date, the UAV has become best known for military uses to monitor terrorist threats or attacks, wars, and as unmanned “eye in the sky” spy planes.
Drones have been around longer than many of us realise. Winston Churchill studied a de Havilland “Queen Bee” target drone in 1941, and the first tactical UAV mission occurred across the Suez Canal in 1969.
It’s when interest grew within the US military that drones really took off. They were employed in the 1991 Gulf War, big time, and since then the drone has further developed to become cheaper, and generally used for surveillance purposes. Some carrying armaments.
Taking matters beyond military uses, mydronelab.com points to key diverse areas where they’ve proved invaluable and we’re not talking about taking a drone selfie (a “dronie”, what else?). A parallel increase in commercial UAV use for key consumer aviation activities has developed.
Take disaster management. Thales Aerospace reports emergency response field drones are a hugely valuable tool aiding relief efforts in the “golden hour”, the first sixty minutes of an incident meaning the difference between life and death.
Also, floods, earthquakes, search and rescue, emergency supplies deliveries, one significantly reduced delivery time of PPE and COVID test kits in the Scottish Highlands, from six hours by road and ferry to just fifteen minutes by drone.
Medical supplies is another key area. Reports dronesinhealthcare.com how UAVs make it possible to deliver blood, vaccines, birth control, also snake bite serum – but not necessarily to the Highlands – especially to rural areas.
Rapid delivery of medications and supplies direct to source can quash outbreaks of life-threatening communicable diseases. Also, communications equipment, mobile technology and portable shelters can be delivered quickly to areas where critical infrastructure damage prevents ground or typical air transport.
Then there’s weather forecasting. Drones are especially designed to be flown into the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere, the boundary layer. Equipped with sensors gathering data on temperature, wind and humidity in the atmosphere to help improve weather forecasting models.
However, according to nature.com drones cannot fly in all weathers so their time-sensitive reliability can be impacted. Package delivery firms, for example, need advice on the days when UAVs cannot fly. Back to that precious parcel ever being delivered by drone.
Professor Arthur Richards, head of aerial robotics at Bristol Robotics Lab, cautions: “The hard bit is the last two metres off the ground. It’s astonishing what machine learning can do but it’s also astonishing what it gets wrong.” Just ask Amazon…