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Amazon tests drone parcel deliveries in the UK

Amazon has partnered with the U.K. government to test drones in Britain's rural and suburban areas, a move which aims to bring the unmanned flying machines closer to being used for deliveries, the U.S. e-commerce giant said on Tuesday.

The Government and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the U.K.'s aviation watchdog, has granted Amazon permission to explore "three key innovations":

  • Flying drones beyond the line of sight of operations
  • Testing sensors on the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to see if they can identify and avoid obstacles
  • Flight where one person controls a number of drones

Currently, flying drones out of the line of sight of the operator is illegal in the U.K. and in the U.S., something that has pretty much blocked Amazon's attempts to deliver parcels via drone.

"The U.K. is a leader in enabling drone innovation – we've been investing in Prime Air research and development here for quite some time," Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president of global innovation policy and communications, said in a press release on Tuesday.

Amazon delivery via Prime Air drone
Source: Amazon Inc.
Amazon delivery via Prime Air drone

"This announcement strengthens our partnership with the U.K. and brings Amazon closer to our goal of using drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to customers in the U.K. and elsewhere around the world."

How could it work?

Exact details on how the system would work are still unclear. In principle, a drone would pick up a parcel from a warehouse, fly it over to a hoe or business and drop it off. But patents granted to Amazon recently show that the system could potentially be more complex.

Last year, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) filing showed how a UAV would collect a package from a handling facility and fly to its destination. But during this journey, it would communicate with other drones flying in the area to help with its route planning. Another patent granted earlier this month revealed an idea for "docking stations"on top of tall structures like lampposts or church steeples, where a drone could recharge or pick up a parcel.

These patented ideas may never see the light of day, but it highlights that the communication between drones will be key.

Clash with U.S. regulators

A number of privacy concerns about the use of drones have been raised and there are still questions over the commercial feasibility of drone delivery. But Prime Air – the name of Amazon's drone project – is a huge objective for the company since it was unveiled in 2013.

However, the U.S. e-commerce firm has often clashed with regulators - particularly the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which recently released a new set of rules that stopped short of allowing Amazon to carry out deliveries by drones. That's why Amazon has been looking to other countries to develop Prime Air. Before the partnership with the U.K., Amazon had already been testing drones in Canada and the Netherlands.

Amazon will be hoping the partnership with the U.K. government will pave the way for drone deliveries to become a reality.

"These tests by Amazon will help inform our policy and future approach," Tim Johnson, the CAA's policy director, said in a press release.