Drone delivery: the next frontier for e-commerce?

Amazon is lobbying to make drone deliveries in the US a reality, while in Australia, a local drone company, Flirtey, is promising to revolutionise the e-commerce industry with same-day online shopping deliveries.

“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is my online shopping being delivered by drone.” It sounds far-fetched, but drone delivery could be the next major technology disruptor in e-commerce – and an Australian company hopes to be among the likes of Amazon to pioneer the concept.

Australian autonomous aerial delivery company Flirtey believes it could revolutionise e-commerce through real-time delivery with the use of its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones” as they are more commonly known.

Flirtey doesn’t yet have approvals to operate commercially, but it says the legal framework is in place for the licensing of drone deliveries in Australia. “UAVs can be operated commercially in Australia with certification from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. We’re in the process of applying for regulatory approval now to begin our operations,” it says on its website.

The Federal Government, however, tabled an inquiry called Eyes in the Sky in July 2014. This looks into the use of drones over issues around privacy, among other concerns.

Textbook deliveries by drone

In 2013, Flirtey said it was planning to launch its first drone deliveries by March 2014 with textbook company Zookal . March has come and gone without any drones yet flying around Australia’s university campuses, but Flirtey remains optimistic about the venture. After all, people never thought the concept of autonomous cars would come to fruition, but in January 2014, Induct Technology’s Navia became the first self-driving vehicle for commercial sale, and Google has plans to unveil 100 autonomous car prototypes in the next few years.

Flirtey recognises the challenges it needs to overcome before drone deliveries get off the ground. “This won’t happen next week – there’s a lot of technical and regulatory stuff to do to make sure it’s safe and reliable enough to fly around busy cities – but it will happen,” it insists on its website.

Drone safety and security concerns

Of course, no government or civil aviation authority is going to easily give the green light to a company wanting to have drones zipping all over their cities and air space.

Concerns around safety and privacy are the main issues driving the Australian Government’s Eyes in the Sky Inquiry.

Flirtey, however, insists its drones will be safe and secure: “We’re developing advanced technology like collision avoidance and multiple redundant backup systems,” it says.

Amazon leads drone debate in US

It is not just in Australia that drone delivery is making news – in the US, some of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies, including Amazon, have publicly spoken about how drone delivery could transform the entire online shopping industry.

In November 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched the Amazon Prime Air concept, which promised same-day delivery to US customers through the use of drones. Some commentators suggested this announcement was merely a publicity stunt to boost pre-Christmas sales, but the e-commerce giant insisted it was serious about working with the US’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to get the go-ahead for its drones.

In June 2014, however, the FAA released a report stating that, currently, drones can still only be used for hobby or recreational purposes. Amazon remained undeterred, saying it would continue to lobby the FAA on drone delivery and to push for authorisation for commercial drone use.

Clearly, drone technology has many regulatory and commercial challenges to overcome, and e-commerce businesses won’t be despatching drones with deliveries in the near future. But when an online giant like Amazon publicly throws its weight behind this type of disruptor technology, you can be sure that we haven’t heard the last of it.

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