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Amazon Tests Delivery Drones At Secret Canada Site After US Frustration 213

An anonymous reader sends this excerpt from The Guardian: Amazon is testing its drone delivery service at a secret site in Canada, following repeated warnings by the e-commerce giant that it would go outside the U.S. to bypass what it sees as the U.S. federal government's lethargic approach to the new technology. The largest internet retailer in the world is keeping the location of its new test site closely guarded. What can be revealed is that the company's formidable team of roboticists, software engineers, aeronautics experts and pioneers in remote sensing – including a former NASA astronaut and the designer of the wingtip of the Boeing 787 – are now operating in British Columbia. The end goal is to utilize what Amazon sees as a slice of virgin airspace – above 200ft, where most buildings end, and below 500ft, where general aviation begins. Into that aerial slice the company plans to pour highly autonomous drones of less than 55lbs, flying through corridors 10 miles or longer at 50mph and carrying payloads of up to 5lbs that account for 86% of all the company's packages.
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Amazon Tests Delivery Drones At Secret Canada Site After US Frustration

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  • by xdor ( 1218206 )
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

    • seriously good for canada. but on the other hand, thanks alot US government for pushing this outside of our borders Im glad to know that you are keeping us safe from these autonomous delivery overlords.....
      • Yes, how dare the US government insist on there being some standards and paperwork for a flying machine that moves at freeway speed, weighs as much as a child, has spinning blades of doom, a battery that can catch fire if poked wrong and will be built by a company that has trouble taping a box closed. The nerve!
        • And further flies at altitudes that will be visible and audible to vast swaths of the population, flies at altitudes that include buildings, towers and uncontrolled landing zones.

          As well as other important issues.

          Yep, gotta get on this right away. It's more important to be first than right. While the FAA could likely move a bit faster, my sympathies simply don't pour out to Amazon. And it's perfectly OK to work on this sort of technology away from busy population centers. Like we've pretty much always

          • You forgot about the ease of delivering that 5 pound block of C4 plus detonator to pretty much anybody that ordered it. It isn't even "just" the Amazon drones. Anybody can capture an Amazon drone (or build their own copy and paint it accordingly) and use it to make a "special delivery" to, well, pretty much anyone. "Special Delivery, Mr. President! It's those "books" you ordered from Amazon!"

            You can pack a whole lot of evil into 2 kg of C4 (or whatever the latest/greatest compact explosive is) plus deto

        • none of that has anything to do with them simply requesting to test, in a controlled area however.

          down the road that is a legit concern, but at the current point in time, its just FUD
        • by khallow ( 566160 )

          Yes, how dare the US government insist on there being some standards and paperwork for a flying machine that moves at freeway speed, weighs as much as a child, has spinning blades of doom, a battery that can catch fire if poked wrong and will be built by a company that has trouble taping a box closed.

          And does nothing to actual develop these standards.

  • by The New Guy 2.0 ( 3497907 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @03:11PM (#49381035)

    Amazon's getting smart with wheeled vehicles delivering to the big cities where flight is impossible, and flying devices to deliver to spread out communities like farm land...

    • by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @03:43PM (#49381299)

      Except that doesn't make sense. Drones will have very limited range when carrying any package with significant weight. Rural areas are probably outside that range, unless the drones are big -- big enough to carry a package and a lot of fuel/energy. Big drones will be very expensive.

      Drone delivery makes the most sense when delivering items to boats offshore or to other recipients who are inaccessible by land. Aside from those specific cases, my guess is that drone delivery can never compete economically with truck or bicycle delivery.

      • Never mind cost effective: how on earth do you find somewhere to land? A drone capable of hefting 2kg over any appreciable distance is not small. You need to find a big enough clear area then be really really really REALLY sure it's actually clear. And that includes clear of things which are hard to spot, such as overhead wires.

        It will probably work OK in large spread out suburbs (range issues aside) because people tend to have large enough tracts of land. I don't see how it will work in cities.

        • by g0bshiTe ( 596213 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @04:31PM (#49381669)
          A friend of mine built one for a DARPA challenge his device is an octocopter capable of 20 lb payload and 10 mile round trip. It's diameter is just around 2 1/2 feet.
        • by Asgard ( 60200 ) *

          I suspect it'll require some sort of signup and beacon placement for the drone to know where to place the package; say by placing multiple beacons in your yard / on your building roof (for larger buildings) that designate the boundaries where the objects can be placed. The beacons could also transmit the destination GPS coordinates for en-route navigation, but gps is probably not enough for the final drop. That would have to rely on a signal from the beacons themselves.

          The beacons can also act as warnings

          • Like maybe a smartphone? There will probably be some app, "Your delivery is nearby, please go outside to receive" that then homes in on you. And drops the package on your head, then "accidentally" eviscerates you with it's giant blades. But remember, The Computer is your Friend. Trust the Computer.
          • I suspect we will also see a lot more drone landing pads on top of skyscrapers.
      • obligatory spooky Protoss voice: "Carrier has arrived".

      • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

        You're talking about aerial drones. What about ground drones?

      • I quads, I've seen 1 that would be capable of flying a 20 lb package 10 miles, it wouldn't be able to make the return trip, most of the flight weight is battery. Current lipo tech is fairly weaksauce in an application requiring flight times exceeding 20 minutes. Factor in wind conditions and air temps and you get into shady territory when calculating distances.

        I've had to ground my quads in temps in the mid to lower 40s F due to odd behavior from a cold battery.

        The current level of tech in rc is just not
        • that's why they will be powered off the blood of Amazon's temp workers. It's buried inside the NDA.
      • In a big city where a delivery is a 1-5 minute flight as the crow flies, as they say, or a 40 minute traffic fest. In major cities there is also the problem of where do you park even just to walk into the building for 2-5 minutes.
        • by Kohath ( 38547 )

          Yes, but packages don't really mind waiting in traffic. They usually have a lot of other packages in the truck to keep them company as they are all delivered, one by one, along the delivery route. It turns out to be pretty efficient.

          Some people are in too much of a hurry to receive their package to wait for a truck to navigate traffic. They'll pay extra for quick delivery. But in that case, it's hard to see how a drone beats a bicycle. Bicycle messengers are low-skilled and numerous while drone pilots

          • Well the idea here is highly autonomous. Meaning the idea is the the main cost is the power, and it should be far faster than bicycle. I think it is plausible that the fuel would cost less than minimum wage. Also, I could see many people being willing to add $20 to the price to get it delivered in 10 minutes.
            • by Kohath ( 38547 )

              Maybe. I don't know how you could possibly land a drone safely at an arbitrary address. You'd need a designated landing area to be able to do it autonomously.

              And I don't know how much bicycle messengers get paid. Maybe they make more than $20 for a 10 minute delivery. Maybe it takes them more than 10 minutes to go a mile or 2. Maybe $20 is economical for a drone delivery. But maybe not -- to all of these things.

        • In a big city where a delivery is a 1-5 minute flight as the crow flies, as they say, or a 40 minute traffic fest. In major cities there is also the problem of where do you park even just to walk into the building for 2-5 minutes.

          If you are UPS or FedEx, you just park in the middle of the street and block traffic.

  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @03:11PM (#49381039)

    The main problem (well, perhaps not the MAIN problem) I see is that no-one signed up to have drone flights right over their houses. You can buy and plan for where airports are going to be, but the "drone corridors" will just appear overhead one day. Drone sounds are (I think) especially obnoxious buzzing...

    It'll be interesting to see if communities try to ban this.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by cruff ( 171569 )

      It'll be interesting to see if communities try to ban this.

      Communities do not have the legal authority to regulate airspace, for the most part they can only request the FAA impose restrictions.

      • Considering the FAA has already banned this in their jurisdiction I don't see your point. I think the GP was talking about communities in Canada.

        • I was thinking everywhere, not just the U.S., but I have to admit I did not remember only the FAA could regulate local airspace, and I have no idea what other countries do in that regard.

          It seems like communities could address this to some extent not just trough airspace, but using zoning to disallow facilities where the drones could take off and land.

          • By "facilities" do you mean an intersection? Cause that's all they would need, less actually to deploy.

            I have one that can carry 2kg and I can take off and land on a manhole cover. Same copter I can pull from the trunk of a car, slap in a battery, arm it and flip a switch and literally throw it into the air and it will right itself and fly the programmed route including RTH.
      • by itzly ( 3699663 )

        They can regulate it with a slingshot.

      • No but they do have existing noise ordinances that would not exempt a business' drones.

    • by occasional_dabbler ( 1735162 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @03:29PM (#49381183)
      55lbs at 50mph will kill a child or pet quite comfortably, and seriously injure an adult. There are places for autonomous drones: battlefields and the outback, delivering either information or medecine in places you couldn't otherwise get to.

      If this is a serious proposal it is just to scrape a few more tenths of a percent out of the delivery costs, or it's just a publicity stunt. Any drone flying in urban areas should be built and controled to military standards in order to be safe and THAT does not make it a cheap option

      • by grimmjeeper ( 2301232 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @03:35PM (#49381235) Homepage

        I've worked on a number of military projects in my career. Saying it "should be built and controlled to military standards" is a very low bar to clear. I would want it to be held to a much higher standard than that. Even civilian FAA standards are substantially higher than military standards.

        • Good point. Military standards are appropriate for military use, whereas civil standards are appropriate for a very litigious civil environment. I should have been clearer: If we are going to have drones routinely flying at 50mph 200 ft above heavily populated areas then they need to have at least the kind of reliability you get from a military drone (you don't throw away $4M Predators if you don't have to) if they want to avoid the lawsuits.

          The FAA are actually very good at setting commercial aerospace sta

          • The FAA don't yet allow drone flights like this and that pretty much means it isn't yet acceptable safe.

            There are a lot of good reasons for that. Some reasons aren't as good. But the reasons the FAA is careful is only partially driven by an avoidance of litigation. They do take their mission seriously and that mission is to ensure that the airspace is as safe as it can be. Quite frankly, drone technology is in its infancy. They have the birds in the air, sure, but they do lack many significant and necessary safety features because, as you suggest, the consequences of a significant weight moving through t

            • I can tell you the fundamental problem.

              All of aerospace safety is based on the probability of various outcomes and the severity of those outcomes. For example, a 'catastrophic' event is one in which all, or most occupants of the aircraft die and the hull is lost. This has to have a probablity of occurence per aircraft of one in one billion flight hours, this means it's pretty much never going to happen and why all the crashes on TV are terrorists/pilot error/bad luck but almost never failure of the machine

              • Just to elaborate. By the current rules, if you choose to fly, you should be able to fly for 1000 lifetimes to have a chance of dying due to a problem with the design of the aircraft. Johnny in his sandpit didn't choose to fly and the FAA has to protect him.
          • If we are going to have drones routinely flying at 50mph 200 ft above heavily populated areas then they need to have at least the kind of reliability you get from a military drone

            So you want it to blow up a civilians on a regular basis?

        • "lowest bidder" wins again.
      • Yes, because planes have never dropped out of the sky and injured people before, right? Oh, well since they have, let's ban all private and commercial planes and helicopters from flying over commercial and residential areas.
        • Well, you are arguing my point. Build the drones to FAA civil aerospace standards and maintain them to keep them in flying condition, then get people to fly them who have gone through the same checks and training as FAA certified pilots and you have a safe system. Guess what: costs more than a truck with a driver.
          • by adolf ( 21054 )

            There is no FAA civil aerospace standard for commercially-operated unmanned drones.

          • As an RC pilot I've seen licensed pilots struggle with RC, they have a hard time making the transition from cockpit view to tower view.

            Granted with FPV this wouldn't be an issue but we are talking autonomous vehicles not piloted. If it's autonomous why the need for FAA certificated pilot?
            • Two issues:

              You have it exactly right; 'pilots' will have to be trained to pilot the vehicle for which they are to be licenced. Obviously this is a bit nonsensical; it will be computers that do the piloting, but the FAA is set up to regulate human control of aircraft and they have to develop a whole new set of rules to regulate machines, which is an even tougher call.


              Granted with FPV this wouldn't be an issue

              welcome to civil aerospace regulations. What's the failure rate of that there FPV? Oh, well, that doesn't cut it by five orders of ma

          • "costs more than a truck with a driver". Are you sure? Where is your math? Amazon will have a central "flight center", technical schools will start offering single semester "drone flight" classes for 2 and 3 year pilot programs; possibly an entire degree program including maintenance and repair.. Here in Tulsa we have Spartan (yes, the same school the 9/11 guys trained at lol)...Amazon could easily set up a flight center on the airport property and hire students on shift work, interns, hire graduates, e
      • A five ton delivery truck can be quite lethal also. Taking your child to pick something up or leaving them unsupervised while you go to the store creates additional risk. Accidents involving multiple passengers and multiple vehicles compound the lethality of single points of failure. Even if the drone dies unexpectedly, it's going to have significant probability of having a non-lethal descent, being over a building or open terrain, compared to a vehicle which is specifically restricted to an area with ot

    • I currently live under an inbound flight path for LAX, and about 1/2 mile from a freight/AMTRAK line. I hear both if I listen for them, but after about a year I no longer noticed the sound. I'm fairly certain I'll tune out the drones as well. What I DO find especially obnoxious are those god damn UPS trucks and their loud engines and squeaky brakes. They're impossible to ignore, and my dogs go apeshit every time one comes barreling down the street. I'd happily trade a whirring noise 200 feet above me for t
      • And with the development of more efficient motors / rotors the noise will go down. Less noise = less friction = more fuel efficiency, so the noise should drop the better the tech gets. Eventually we'll see blades made with "bizarre" edges 3D printed out, edges designed for maximum flow and noise.
    • In reality you wouldn't hear the thing 300 feet over your head.
      • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

        In reality you wouldn't hear the thing 300 feet over your head.

        And certainly not if it fell out of the sky and onto your head or your kids head grandmother, dog or anything else for that matter. It's hard to imagine them never failing.

        I'm not sure if I like the idea of these things buzzing around where the birds are supposed to be either. Just how much of nature are we prepared to fuck up.

    • The main problem (well, perhaps not the MAIN problem) I see is that no-one signed up to have drone flights right over their houses.

      That is true, and in the United States, the FAA already protects you from this invasion of your airspace. Since we are talking about rural areas (although I doubt a drone could be cost effective due to distance limitations in a rural area), the applicable FAR is Sec. 91.119 - Minimum safe altitudes: General.... (c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 f

  • Outrageous! (Score:2, Informative)

    by ScentCone ( 795499 )
    There's only one way to punish Amazon for taking this activity outside of the US. We must find a way, since they have a business presence in the US, to add a larger regulatory and tax burden onto them until they submit, and return this activity, which we won't let them do anyway, to US soil. At which point of course we will not reduce that new tax or regulatory burden, but that'll show 'em anyway.

    Way to go, Executive Branch.
    • I really don't think any US Government body cares if Amazon tests their drones in another country. The FAA may even thank them as it may solve some of their regulatory testing issues.

      • by jythie ( 914043 )
        The US Government does not even care if they do their testing IN the US, the FAA has an category for that (unless they are being VERY negligent). Amazon is just throwing a public hissy fit over not being able to implement drone delivery for commercial purposes. But testing? Perfectly legal right now.
        • hissy fit = PR opportunity LOL. Anything to put Amazon in the news in a "good" light!
        • Re:Outrageous! (Score:4, Informative)

          by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @05:40PM (#49382155)

          But testing? Perfectly legal right now.

          Sure, perfectly legal if you make all of your drone research team run out and get a pilot's license, and then file flight plans for every single test. You know, if you take a quadcopter out into the parking lot and hover it ten feet off the ground to test a delivery mechanism, you need an FAA licensed pilot and a filed flight plan for all 30 seconds that will take. Sounds like a really great environment in which to conduct thousands of man hours of testing, huh?

          And no, there is no provision in the FAA rules for Amazon to test a single flight where the vehicle goes out of line of site of the hands-on operator. The entire premise of what they're researching is prohibited, barring a waiver that they've only issued to an operator in rural Alaska inspecting pipelines while using existing, military-class equipment.

      • I think government (in partnership with industry) should set up a fake city for testing drones and autonomous vehicles/cars. They get a safe testing site, we don't get run over or have a drone slam into our bedroom at 50 mph.
  • The end goal is to utilize what Amazon sees as a slice of virgin airspace – above 200ft, where most buildings end, and below 500ft, where general aviation begins.

    Too bad they are going to spend a significant time outside of that airspace during takeoff and landing. That airspace is also occupied by buildings higher than about ten stories.

    It would be interesting to know the mean time between failure of the drones they intend to use.

    • by bondsbw ( 888959 )

      You are so right. There is absolutely no way to plan around this. We must shut down the whole thing now and forevermore.

      • There is absolutely no way to plan around this.

        I sense sarcasm. Do you have any ideas on how to deliver packages accurately without going below 200ft?

  • by thebes ( 663586 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @03:18PM (#49381103)

    https://xkcd.com/1243/ [xkcd.com]

    Given the rogue unregulated nature of this airspace they want to exploit, I will claim the airspace over my property as my own and setup a few, ummm, butterfly nets...

    • I was wondering about this from the first time the drone delivery thing came up. People will steal everything that is unprotected, and sometimes even things that are heavily protected. Why do Amazon et. al. think it will be any different with delivery drones? Once those drones are ubiquitous, shooting them down just to hunt down some nice surprise presents will become a new sport.
  • Is this "slice of virgin airspace" within shotgun reach?

    • Probably not. Hitting anything, let alone a moving target, from 500 ft with a shotgun is doubtful unless you're using rifled slugs with actual sights but even then I'd be surprised.

      While we're on the subject anyone shooting above the horizon with anything other than birdshot is an idiot.

    • You'll have to ask Joe Biden about that, he's our "Secretary of Shotguns" and "creepy groping".
  • But in the short time it took for the US Gov to OK Amazon's plans, Amazon had changed those plans such that the ones submitted were no longer valid. Is that what really happened?

    Also, I saw no mention by Amazon about their concern for the safety of the people who will be living under the threat of the Amazon drones falling out of the air. Maybe that is why Amazon is moving so quickly, their concern for safety is not as the level it should be.

  • Blackjack and hookers!

  • Last week a senior Amazon executive appeared before a US Senate subcommittee and warned that there would be consequences if federal regulators continued to act as a drag on its ambitions to launch a drone delivery service called Prime Air.

    Ok, I can understand Amazon doing their testing elsewhere, but I'm not quite sure what the resultant consequence to the US is.

  • by frisket ( 149522 ) <peterNO@SPAMsilmaril.ie> on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @04:02PM (#49381425) Homepage
    I don't get this. What happens when the drone arrives at my address? Does it ring the doorbell and wait? Does it go round the back and leave it on the back porch if I'm out? (I'm in a low-crime neighbourhood where this is possible.) Or will it leave it with my neighbour, as instructed?
    • I'm with you! And don't get me started on these newfangled horseless carriages. I spent all morning beating mine with the buggy whip and it didn't budge an inch!

    • More than direct-to-customer deliveries, I see Amazon using this for a next-to-the-last-mile distribution network. Basically, extending their distribution network out one level to the retail storefront scale. In this model, drones would take packages from regional distribution centers to customer-facing pickup locations (i.e. the retail storefront). In such a network, the drone could drop the package in a chute on the roof of the pickup facility, to be manually or automatically sorted for pickup. In a fully

      • They could use the existing USPS locations. I can see Amazon forcing the USPS, via lobbyist regulations, to force them to allow drone drop-offs. Amazon could even provide a pre-packaged cargo container "box" that has a small landing pad on top, with the internals containing a track / sort system to push and sort internal packages to road-based drones for the final mile eventually. Since USPS is still technically under federal control and taxpayer "subsidized" this would be the simplest, quickest solution
    • I would program my drones to home in on house's mailboxes. They are all right next to the street, are all required to fall within certain shape parameters already by USPS. Dropping the package off within X feet of them, using visual algorithms to see were the grass / street / trees that already exists.
  • So I doubt I will be getting anything delivered by drone.

  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Tuesday March 31, 2015 @08:27PM (#49383119)
    (that's Area 51 in American)
  • The end goal is to utilize what Amazon sees as a slice of virgin airspace â" above 200ft, where most buildings end, and below 500ft, where general aviation begins.

    Yea, I hate to break it to Amazon, but that airspace isn't "virgin", it is currently the domain of helicopters.

    Normally, helicopters will fly 500ft above the ground, give or take a bit, but they do not have a lower limit.

    FAR 91.119 says "Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes..." and it turns out to be illegal to fly an airplane less than 1000' above the rooftops of a city (i.e., about 1200' above the ground) or 500' from any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure in the countryside (i.e., at least 500' above the ground). This is a much closer look than you would get in a commercial airliner, but it isn't all that close. FAR 91.119(d) says "Helicopters may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section if the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface."

    As long as the helicopter could autorotate to a tennis court, road, or field in the event of an engine failure, the pilot can fly much lower than in an airplane.

    Source - Me... I'm a Certified Flight Instructor in both helicopters and airplanes, with thousands of hours of dual given, 2 years spent as a Chief Flight Instructor in a FAA Part 141 school, as well as nearly 10 years of commercial flight experience in tours, offshore, and EMS.

    Amazon is out of their mind if they think this is ever going to work. If nothing else, the police and EMS helicopters are not going to get out of their way and they have more of a need to be there.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun