Drones won't be delivering our mail for a while yet

Testing a delivery drone. Andreas Rentz/Getty

Australia Post has made a lot of song and dance about wanting to use drones to deliver parcels. It is not the only one. Amazon and Google have gained significant publicity about their trials. But they are still trials.

It is great that companies such as Australia Post are looking at drones but it will be at least five years, maybe 10, before its vision becomes a reality.

For the delivery of parcels by drones to become possible there are many, many hurdles that need to be overcome.

The Federal Aviation Administration in the US is leading the charge globally. In May this year it announced it was launching a new program to study the use of drones beyond the operator’s line of sight. That’s right – you cannot fly a drone for the purposes that Australia Post wants to do without the drone going out of the pilot’s sight.

The FAA is ahead of what the Civil Aviation Safety Authority is doing here in Australia – so we are unlikely to see Australia Post deliver parcels by drone for many years to come. Even Amazon had to move its R&D into the use of drones from the US to Europe because they couldn’t get approval to do testing in the US.

Drones are prohibited in Washington DC because of security around federal buildings. The FAA announced a “no-drone zone” campaign in June to reinforce the prohibition. People who violate the ban face a fine up to $US25,000.

Flying drones via line of sight is just one of the multitude of problems.

Collision avoidance – how will we stop two drones from crashing into each other? The drone industry at the moment does not have air traffic control. No doubt when the Wright Brothers were inventing the first plane it was not something they were thinking about. But the industry developed and so has air traffic control.

How will this work for drones? Currently there is nothing that tells anyone that a drone is in the air. And what sort of infrastructure will have to be built for any regulator to know where all the drones are? And who will pay for it?

If you go to YouTube there are plenty of drone crashes that you can watch. In a future, commercial drones will have to know where is the best place to crash if something goes wrong.

Flight times are currently limited. Drones are powered by batteries and while they have got a lot better in recent years – both from a weight and length perspective – flight times are maxed out at about 30 minutes. The commercial drones Australia Post is talking about also have a maximum speed of 60kmh – so 15 minutes each way (maximum) won’t provide a great delivery span.

And what happens when the drone arrives? It may have successfully navigated its way to your home but it can’t simply drop the parcel from a height. It will have to land very softly so as not to break your precious cargo. How this works has not been resolved.

Any ONE of the above will put a stop to either the regulator allowing drone delivery or it not being commercially viable.

Don’t get me wrong about the use of drones. Every day they are playing a bigger role in what we do. Drones are being used for dozens of commercial uses such as surveillance, to examine hard-to-get to places such as the top of a chimney to see if it is structurally sound, for films, to video farms that are for sale, to check the status of waterways. The list goes on.

In fact, every week there is someone asking to use a drone for something we had not thought of. Search and rescue – using drones that have infrared and thermal imaging – will also be very useful in the future to get to places helicopters can’t go because of either the conditions or the terrain.

There is no doubt drones have their place in what we do every day. But for the delivery of our postage – I think you will find the postman will be around for many, many years to come.

Brett Chilton is Business Development Manager of Swarm UAV, part of the Swarm Group, an Australian drone R&D company.

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