The government’s getting together with the retail giant Amazon to start testing flying drones that can deliver parcels to your door.
Amazon’s paying for the programme, which will look at the best way to allow hundreds of robotic aircraft to buzz around Britain’s skies safely.
The company claims it’ll eventually mean small parcels will arrive at your house within 30 minutes of ordering them online.
Ministers say they want to pave the way for all businesses to start using the technology in future, but they will still have to convince the public that having automated drones flying around is both safe and won’t invade people’s privacy.
The trials will look at cracking three big problems:
- How can you operate drones safely beyond “line of sight”? The current rules say a pilot has to be able to see the aircraft at all times
- How can you build a drone that won’t bump into things? Much like autonomous cars it would need sensors to help it avoid objects
- How can you build a system where one pilot is responsible for many drones?
The government says the work will help it draw up new rules and regulations for the future, so that all companies can take advantage of drone technology, which it claims could eventually be worth billions.
Amazon says it is conducting the trials in Britain, because the regulations are more flexible than in other countries.
A number of systems are being tried, but the current favourite seems to be a machine that’s part airplane and part helicopter.
It can fly at 50mph (80km/h) for 10 miles (16km) or more away from base, at a height of around 350ft (100m).
When it reaches the delivery address, it comes down vertically onto a special landing mat that the buyer will place on their property. So you could have parcels popped into your back garden for security.
The company also claims it’s working on ways to make the machines quieter and it says they won’t have cameras on, just sensors.
That privacy question is something that came up a lot when I chatted to people on Maidstone High Street the other day.
Maybe the Amazon drones won’t be filming, but people are worried other drones would.
Sheffield University professor Noel Sharkey – a robotics expert who co-founded the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and is currently a judge on the BBC’s Robot Wars programme – voices concern about the growth of drones.
“All information is stealable and all drones hackable”, he tells me. “Anybody could steal one to deliver drugs or bombs.
“The Taliban have been hacking into military drones for years, stealing video feeds, using a bit of software they got from Sweden. Hezbollah did it for years with Israeli military drones.
“In 2012 the US Army warned people that it couldn’t help making accidental recordings while flying over houses; so filming people in their back gardens, for example.”
Prof Sharkey also says he worries that the aviation authorities are interested in safety, but not privacy. He describes a sudden increase in flying drones as a “nightmare scenario”.
“We need a broader societal discussion; not just the government and Amazon getting into a huddle for the sake of the economy.”
It’s impossible to say how many parcels we’re talking about as Amazon doesn’t give figures. But it would be anything weighing less than 2.2kg (5lbs) and that is 80-90% of the things they sell.
Ministers say they want to create an environment where drones can be operated safely, beyond the line of sight, by 2020.
It may be Amazon today, but the question is: Who’ll want to use drones in future?