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Amazon’s Customers Waiting On Drone Delivery

When you’re in his world you think more about technology than regulations.

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Drones
A drone demonstrates delivery capabilities from the top of a UPS truck during testing in Lithia, Florida. VOA

Jeff Bezos boldly predicted five years ago that drones would be carrying Amazon packages to people’s doorsteps by now.

Amazon customers are still waiting. And it’s unclear when, if ever, this particular order by the company’s founder and CEO will arrive.

Bezos made billions of dollars by transforming the retail sector. But overcoming the regulatory hurdles and safety issues posed by drones appears to be a challenge even for the world’s wealthiest man. The result is a blown deadline on his claim to CBS’ “60 Minutes” in December 2013 that drones would be making deliveries within five years.

The day may not be far off when drones will carry medicine to people in rural or remote areas, but the marketing hype around instant delivery of consumer goods looks more and more like just that — hype. Drones have a short battery life, and privacy concerns can be a hindrance, too.

“I don’t think you will see delivery of burritos or diapers in the suburbs,” says drone analyst Colin Snow.

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In this Sept. 13, 2018, file photo Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, speaks at The Economic Club of Washington’s Milestone Celebration in Washington. VOA

Drone usage has grown rapidly in some industries, but mostly outside the retail sector and direct interaction with consumers.

The government estimates that about 110,000 commercial drones are operating in U.S. airspace, and the number is expected to soar to about 450,000 in 2022. They are being used in rural areas for mining and agriculture, for inspecting power lines and pipelines, and for surveying.

Amazon says it is still pushing ahead with plans to use drones for quick deliveries, though the company is staying away from fixed timelines.

“We are committed to making our goal of delivering packages by drones in 30 minutes or less a reality,” says Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish. The Seattle-based online retail giant says it has drone development centers in the United States, Austria, France, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Delivery companies have been testing the use of drones to deliver emergency supplies and to cover ground quickly in less populated areas. By contrast, package deliveries would be concentrated in office parks and neighborhoods where there are bigger issues around safety and privacy.

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The Amazon warehouse in San Fernando de Henares is seen during a 3-day walkout to demand better wages and working conditions, on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain. VOA

In May, the Trump administration approved a three-year program for private companies and local government agencies to test drones for deliveries, inspections and other tasks.

But pilot programs by major delivery companies suggest few Americans will be greeted by package-bearing drones any time soon. United Parcel Service tested launching a drone from a delivery truck that was covering a rural route in Florida. DHL Express, the German delivery company, tested the use of drones to deliver medicine from Tanzania to an island in Lake Victoria.

Frank Appel, the CEO of DHL’s parent company, Deutsche Post AG, said “over the next couple of years” drones will remain a niche vehicle and not widely used. He said a big obstacle is battery life.

“If you have to recharge them every other hour, then you need so many drones and you have to orchestrate that. So good luck with that,” he told The Associated Press.

Appel said human couriers have another big advantage over drones: They know where customers live and which doorbell to ring. “To program that in IT is not that easy and not cheap,” he said.

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The logo of Amazon, online retailer is seen at the company logistics center in Lauwin-Planque, France. VOA

Analysts say it will take years for the Federal Aviation Administration to write all the rules to allow widespread drone deliveries.

Snow, the CEO of Skylogic Research, says a rule permitting operators to fly drones beyond their line of sight — so critical to deliveries — is at least 10 years away. A method will be needed to let law enforcement identify drones flying over people — federal officials are worried about their use by terrorists.

While the rules are being written, companies will rely on waivers from the FAA to keep experimenting and running small-scale pilot programs.

“People like DHL and the rest of them (will say), ‘Hey, we can deliver via drone this parcel package to this island,’ but that’s not the original vision that Amazon presented,” Snow says.

There is a long list of FAA rules governing drone flights. They generally can’t fly higher than 400 feet, over many federal facilities, or within five miles of an airport. Night flights are forbidden. For the delivery business, the most biggest holdup is that the machines must remain within sight of the operator at all times.

In June, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said the FAA’s was being overly conservative in its safety standards for drones. The group said FAA’s risk-averse attitude was holding back beneficial uses, such as drones helping firefighters who are battling a fierce blaze.

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Amazon’s Customers Still Waiting, Flickr

Even before the criticism by the scientific panel, the FAA had begun to respond more quickly to operators’ requests for waivers from some rules, says Alan Perlman, founder of the Drone Pilot Ground School in Nashville, Tennessee. He said it is also getting easier and cheaper to buy liability insurance.

Bezos was mindful of the safety issues, telling “60 Minutes” back in 2013, “This thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighborhood.”

Also Read: Apple Music To Work With Amazon Echo

That didn’t stop him from predicting that drones fed with GPS coordinates would be taking off and making deliveries in “four, five years. I think so. It will work, and it will happen.”

To Perlman, the billionaire’s optimism made perfect sense.

“When you’re in his world you think more about technology than regulations, and the (drone) technology is there,” Perlman said. (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s a Look at What’s Happening in Amazon Region

Fires have been breaking out at an unusual pace in Brazil this year, causing global alarm over deforestation in the Amazon region

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Fire consumes an area near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 23, 2019. Brazilian state experts have reported a record of nearly 77,000 wildfires across the country so far this year, up 85% over the same period in 2018. VOA

Fires have been breaking out at an unusual pace in Brazil this year, causing global alarm over deforestation in the Amazon region. The world’s largest rainforest is often called the “lungs of the earth.” Here’s a look at what’s happening:

What’s burning?

Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, which monitors deforestation, has recorded 76,720 wildfires across the country this year, as of Thursday. That’s an 85% rise over last year’s figure. And a little over half of those, 40,341, have been spotted in the Amazon region.

The agency says it doesn’t have figures for the area burned, but deforestation as a whole has accelerated in the Amazon this year. The institute’s preliminary figures show 3,571 square miles (9,250 square kilometers) of forest — an area about the size of Yellowstone National Park — were lost between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1. That already outstrips the full-year figure for 2018 of 2,910 square miles (7,537 square kilometers).

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Virgin jungle stands next to an area that was burned recently near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 23, 2019. VOA

Stricter enforcement of environmental laws between 2004 and 2014 had sharply curbed the rate of deforestation, which peaked in the early 2000s at 9,650 square miles a year (25,000 square kilometers).

Meanwhile, large fires also have been burning in neighboring countries such as Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.

What’s causing the fires? 

Paulo Moutinho, co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, said this week that “it is very difficult to have natural fires in the Amazon; it happens, but the majority come from the hand of humans.”

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Moutinho, who has been working in the Amazon forests for nearly 30 years, said fires are mostly set to clear land for farming, ranching or logging, and they can easily get out of control, especially during the July-November dry season. Moutinho says this year hasn’t been especially dry. “We’re lucky. If we had had droughts like in the past four years, this would be even worse.”

Critics of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro say ranching and mining interests eager to expand their holdings have been emboldened by his oft-stated desire to increase development in the region.

How important is the Amazon? 

The world’s largest rainforest, 10 times the size of Texas, is often called the “lungs of the earth,” and 60% of it lies within Brazil.

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Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks at the opening of the Brazilian Steel Congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 21, 2019. VOA

Trees store carbon absorbed from the atmosphere, and the Amazon each year takes in as much as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

The Amazon’s billions of trees also release water vapor that forms a thick mist over the rainforest canopy. It rises into clouds and produces rain, affecting weather patterns across South America and far beyond.

It’s also home to an estimated 20% of Earth’s plant species, many of which are found nowhere else.

“With each hectare burned we could be losing a plant or animal species that we didn’t even know about,” said Andre Guimaraes, director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.

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What is the ‘tipping point’? 

Climate scientist Carlos Nobre of the University of Sao Paulo and Thomas Lovejoy, an environmental scientist at George Mason University, have estimated that the “tipping point for the Amazon system” is 20% to 25% deforestation. Without enough trees to create the rainfall needed by the forest, the longer and more pronounced dry season could turn more than half of the rainforest into a tropical savannah, they wrote last year in the journal Science Advances.

If the rainfall cycle collapses, winter droughts in parts of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina could devastate agriculture, they wrote. The impacts may even be felt as far away as the American Midwest, according to Bill Laurance, a tropical ecologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.

Lovejoy said Friday that close to 20% of the Amazon already has been deforested.

“I worry that the current deforestation will push past the tipping point, leading to massive loss of forest and biodiversity,” he said.

Lovejoy also said the government has proposed infrastructure projects that “would push yet further beyond and accelerate the dieback. It will add to the climate change challenge, massive loss of biodiversity and all that means in foregone human health and economic benefit.”

Bolsonaro’s view 

Bolsonaro took office on Jan. 1 after campaigning on promises to loosen protections for indigenous lands and nature reserves, arguing that they were helping choke Brazil’s now-struggling economy by stifling its major agricultural and mining sectors.

He has expressed a desire to protect the environment, “but without creating difficulties for our progress.”

Bolsonaro has also feuded with nongovernmental groups and foreign governments, including Germany and France, which have demanded that Brazil do more to protect the Amazon. Bolsonaro calls it meddling by people who should improve the environment in their own countries. This week he even suggested, without evidence, that a nongovernmental organization or activists could be setting fires to make him look bad.

He has disputed figures released by the space research institute, and the agency’s head recently was forced out after defending the figures. (VOA)