Autonomous drone technology, once science fiction, is now becoming a pseudo-reality. Drones can easily be purchased anywhere, from the mall to specialty online businesses. However, truly autonomous drones are light-years behind being able to navigate realistic sky conditions to drop a package off at your front step.
First and foremost, one must recognize the difference between autonomous and unmanned drones. Unmanned drones comprise current drone technology. They are still piloted, but are controlled remotely as the “pilot” stays on the ground. Autonomous drones, on the other hand, do not have a pilot controlling their every movement. Instead, movement is guided through their sensors and programming.
Currently, unmanned drones are utilized by both citizens and military. However, autonomous drones are mainly limited to experimental use (both in hacker space and in the engineering lab). They are currently able to follow pre-programmed GPS waypoints and fly in good conditions. Some are even able to take off, fly, land, takeoff, return, and land. However, they are not yet durable enough to act in place of a mailman.
The first problem is battery life. One would think that batteries have greatly improved in the past few years. However, they have not. Batteries have, more or less, stayed the same throughout time. The best batteries are not capable of providing a whole lot of runtime to a drone with power-consuming motors carrying a whole lot of load. More problematic is that the more runtime a battery can provide, the heavier the battery becomes. This realistically limits Amazon’s battery choice to expensive (yet more lightweight) LIPO and LION batteries. Perhaps the most problematic is the ability for each of the above to “explode” when either overheated or overcharged. YouTube has many examples of such “explosions.”
The second problem is cost. It costs a heck of a lot to make a hobby drone, and a heck of a lot more to engineer a high quality drone like Amazon plans to use. Combine this with low battery life, and Amazon will need hoards of drones across the nation to deliver products by Amazon Prime Air. The cost alone will severely limit Amazon’s plans to build a fleet of drones.
The most serious issue is the lifespan of a drone. Right now drones are not capable of flying in semi-rough conditions, as strong winds can toss it around. This is especially true of fixed-pitched helicopter blades on hexacopters. Wind will pull the drone up higher than it should fly, and the drone will have to compensate by cutting thrust. If not programmed right the drone will literally fall out of the sky. Furthermore, rain water threatens to short-circuit the microprocessor and rust motors. Finally, lighting strikes can easily down a drone. Amazon will likely never see a downed drone again, as they are expensive and their parts could be sold on the black market for quite a bit of money.
The above issues, when combined with uneven motor wear, hacking threats, commercial drone laws, and lawsuits from drone accidents mean that Amazon will not be able to realistically utilize drones for years to come.