American ecommerce giant Amazon is tapping into the skills and knowledge of Britain’s longest-established technology hub to create a premium delivery service using drones.
The Octocopter, which resembles a barbecues with propellers, was unveiled last December on US television by company founder Jeff Bezos. Amazon Prime Air would allow packages of 2.3 kg or less to be delivered within 30 minutes to locations up to 10 miles from a distribution centre. “I know this looks like science fiction”, Bezos admitted on CBS, “but it’s not”.
While some remain sceptical of the viability of the unmanned drones, notable new recruits to Amazon’s expanding Cambridge research and development team include NASA astronaut Neil Woodward and several experienced aerospace engineers. The company has recently advertised several more roles on its site, including a flight operations engineer to, among other duties, plan and execute test flights.
While the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration explicitly banned package delivery drones from US airspace in June, it is currently consulting on detailed rules on drone usage for commercial, not-for-profit and surveillance applications, which are expected to influence worldwide policymaking. The EU also intends to draft tough new regulations which would apply across the continent.
The delivery stage of the supply chain is currently the most problematic for ecommerce businesses, with its reliance on local postal and courier services. Amazon has been working on improving upon its overnight delivery service, also experimenting with taxis in US cities. In the UK it recently launched a same-day service called Pass My Parcel, which uses Post Offices and corner shops as local collection depots.
While Amazon is taking advantage of the wealth of academic and scientific knowledge available in Cambridge to refine Prime Air, the service may still be launched in the US first. But in July, Christopher North, Amazon’s UK chief, told the Mirror: “We just need regulatory approval. There is no reason why we couldn’t have them operating in the UK in a few years.”