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Expert: Amazon drone plan full of hot air

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Published:   |   Updated: December 2, 2013 at 09:31 PM

Santa Claus can breathe easy. Though Amazon.com wants to fill the air with package-delivering drones, it’ll be years, if ever, before the jolly ol’ elf has to worry about competing with a sky full of automated bogeys, experts in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles say.

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos talked about his visions for a drone-filled future during a wide-ranging interview Sunday night on the CBS news show “60 Minutes.” The segment included video of a small unmanned aircraft, known as an octocopter, in testing as its picks up a small package, flies and drops off the load for delivery.

Bezos talked optimistically about being able to use drones to deliver packages weighing less than 5 pounds up to 10 miles within five years.

That’s a stretch, says Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group Corp., a Virginia-based company.

“This is basically a publicity stunt,” says Finnegan, who specializes in forecasting the future of the unmanned aerial systems industry. “There are just huge obstacles to doing what Amazon says it is thinking about doing. Santa is safe.”

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees national airspace, is in the process of figuring out how to allow unmanned aerial vehicles to fly.

This month, as part of what it calls its “Roadmap,” the FAA is going to announce the location of six sites where testing will be allowed, a key step in the process.

So far, the FAA, which approves unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operations by public entities on a case-by-case basis. has only allowed a single commercial UAS operator to fly drones — in the Arctic.

“We are nowhere near close to achieving or even in a position to even think about this,” says Finnegan, who is no bull when it comes to the future economic developments of unmanned aerial systems, a market he sees worth more than $2 billion over the next decade.

Finnegan, however, says in essence that the Amazon plan is a drone too far.

“On one hand, the FAA has still not opened up the airspace,” Finnegan says. “And the rules on the airspace are still being defined. But the technology is not there yet in terms of the reliability you need for (UASs) to do this. The trouble is, this is still a relatively new technology. It is still developing. It is going to take time for it to be as reliable as it needs to be to do that sort of delivery.”

Skip Parish, a Sarasota inventor who has worked with the military, governments and industry on unmanned aerial systems, lauds Bezos for his grand idea.

“Hats off to this guy,” says Parish. “You have to recognize the ability of this guy at Amazon to adapt technology before someone else does. Give him credit for that, all these things happen in various degrees.”

The military is now working on unmanned systems to deliver food, ammo and other goods to far-flung and hard-to-reach outposts, says Parish, who is intimately familiar with what the systems can and cannot do. He has already helped field drones similar to what Bezos is proposing that provide aerial surveillance for workers exploring potential Ugandan oil fields.

“They work in grass that is about seven or eight feet high and need to be able to see ahead to find lions or hippos,” he says.

But while the Bezos concept is visionary, Parish acknowledges limits on what the drones depicted in the Bezos video can actually do.

“There would be limitations in terms of the weather,” says Parish, who has developed drone weapons and sensor systems. “The small units depicted in the video would not fly well over 15 miles per hour wind. They could not fly in rainstorms.”

Cost, says Finnegan, is another impediment.

“It is going to certainly cost more than Amazon’s existing delivery system,” says Finnegan. Unmanned aerial vehicles “are expensive at this point. The cost will come down as production increases, but we are not there yet.”

The FAA Roadmap gives an indication of how expensive the Bezos idea could be.

Bezos told “60 Minutes” his octocopters would be autonomous, directed by GPS coordinates. However, the FAA Roadmap requires each unmanned aircraft system to have a pilot.

In Amazon’s case, under current rules, every package would then require a pilot, far more costly than a delivery truck carrying many goods.

“Each UAS has a flight crew appropriate to fulfill the operators’ responsibilities, and includes a pilot-in-command,” according to the “Roadmap.”

Each pilot controls only one unmanned aircraft, according to the document.

“Autonomous operations are not permitted,” it reads. The FAA is looking into whether those rules should change.

Parish says he is frustrated that the FAA is taking so long to integrate drones into the national airspace, something costing U.S. industry a lot of money as companies here go to Australia and the United Kingdom, among other places, to develop innovations.

Despite that, Parish says that he is not overly concerned about current FAA-imposed limitations preventing Bezos from turning his concept into reality.

“Industry always tells the FAA what to do,” he says.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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