back to article The bigger the drone, the bigger the impact

At the end of 2013 (the world seemed much simpler back then) Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave a rare interview to CBS’ 60 Minutes program during which he revealed - with an almost Jobsian flourish - an autonomous deliver drone that would drop packages on customers' doorsteps 30 minutes after they pressed the ‘buy’ button. Like most …

  1. Sampler

    Until..

    They get hacked and taken down with less fancy strategies and the cargo snatched, at which point they'll be relegated to moving cheap tat no one would worth stealing, like your macca's lunch...

    1. jmch Silver badge

      Re: Until..

      " Until.. They get hacked and taken down with less fancy strategies and the cargo snatched,"

      I guess it depends on the country and infrastructure. In first world countries, I don't imagine that freight trucks are hijacked with any regularity, unbless there is a particularly valuable cargo and criminals have inside information on the route.

      In less developed places, sure you could get people shooting down drones randomly. But if they fly high enough (couple of hundred meters?) It's going to take more than a crack shot with a rifle or shotgun to shoot them down, and the equipment needed to shoot it down might not be worth the value of the cargo (especially if physically downing the drone means destroying most of teh cargo). Same with hacking it, security doesn't have to be unbreachable, just cost more to breach than the value of the goods carried.

      Humans being humans, there's always going to be SOME crime against them, but a low loss rate in operating these would still be worthwile if they could increase productivity by a much larger percentage.

      I'd be more concerned about range and stability. If you're going to use them to reach remore places, the range has to be at least 100km without refueling / recherging

      1. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: Until..

        I think there'd be more thefts from delivery vans if they didn't have a driver. Robbing an unmanned vehicle would feel more like a victimless crime.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    WTF?

    "Australia’s outback, for example, with its stations spread over vast distances, may be better served by high-capacity drones than by truckers prepared to take on tricky roads remote settlements."

    So somehow, these drones are going to fly thousands of miles with 30, 40 or 50 tonnes of weight and STILL be cheaper than a truck? Or are we talking 500 drones each doing short hops, carrying little loads and being unloaded and reloaded?

    If you are talking maybe an emergency medical supply yes. But when you are transporting 15 tonnes of grain, it's cheaper to lob your tins of bear, shovels, refrigerators etc on the same load.

    1. Evil Auditor

      Re: WTF?

      tins of bear - those Aussies..

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: WTF?

        "tins of bear"

        Open carefully.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: WTF?

          Love typos....

          of course tins of bear is another name for Special Brew and Stella. Drink several of those and you turn into a crazed aggressive animal with stinking breath and unable to use a toilet, preferring to crap near the nearest piece of wood.

        2. Pen-y-gors

          Re: WTF?

          "tins of bear"

          Isn't that what homesick Alaskans have in their cupboards in the Big City? Serves the same purpose as Marmite for ex-pat Brits.

      2. Bubba Von Braun

        Re: WTF?

        Tin of Kola Bears more precisely phascolarctos gravitarius otherwise known as a Drop Bear.

        Be careful when you open the can

        BvB

      3. W4YBO

        Re: WTF?

        I've had questions about Foster's since my first taste. Now I know...

    2. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: WTF?

      That's not a moon... Sorry, that's not a helicopter - it is a heavy cargo drone. Making a let's say drone version of a Mi-10 will allow to dispense with a lot of surplus equipment originally designed to carry the meatware necessary to load and unload the cargo.

      In any case, until it is just a "drone", it stands no chance to compete with a Holden/D-Max with an extra fuel tank. Get on the dirt track and press on the gas. Oops, 500km just went by (been there, done that, albeit not in Australia - in deepest, darkest Eastern Europe).

      IMHO "the outback" is the wrong use case. The real use case is probably island hopper - you are likely to see these in the Bahamas long before you see them in the outback.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Heavy Lift Drones

        Why not just automate all those US Army surplus Chinooks that are sitting in the Desert between Vegas and LA?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Heavy Lift Drones

          Why not just automate all those US Army surplus Chinooks that are sitting in the Desert between Vegas and LA?

          Well, because they use over 350 gallons of fuel an hour, which is expensive, they need regular servicing by highly trained technicians and a good logistics chain, they are noisy, and need a large clear area to land? And even an ancient 20+ year old one will cost $3m, so you're starting off with $400-500k a year in depreciation and interest costs.

          Crew costs can be large as part of the variable operating cost, but as part of the total operating cost

          of a chopper, they're not such a big factor.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            Re: Heavy Lift Drones

            I'll add to this... those airframes are at "end of life". The choppers themselves are still valuable for not "stressed" parts. Most of those aircraft yards are just giant "junk" yards much like what is done for cars and trucks. Strip the parts as needed and scrap the rest.

  3. Evil Auditor

    No human pilots

    ...so no human lives at risk

    Somewhere over the jungle probably not. In densely populated urban areas though...?

  4. Alister

    Rather than using Drones, I would have thought that your Papua New Guinea example was a prime example of where cargo-carrying airships could be used to advantage. Their lifting capacity and power-to-weight ratio is far more suited to moving bulk produce around in the absence of roads, than any sort of helicopter type drone.

    1. Pen-y-gors

      Just what I was thinking - and build in the same control systems that you'd use in a drone, so no need for human pilots.

    2. Denarius Silver badge

      airships versus drones

      Situation: Areas remote from reliable roads and usually anything else

      Energy efficiency hence range. , Airship: Good; Vertical axis rotor: Utterly crap ;STOL aircraft of any kind: Pretty good and faster than airship ; Helicopter : Pretty good and faster than airship, needs less landing area

      Safety: Airship filled with helium: excellent; vertical axis Drone; maybe if big enough to carry ADSB transponder ; STOL fixed wing : good ; Helicopter ; Good

      Cost: Airship: so few hard to guess ; Drone: cheap but low capacity ; STOL: Affordable if long life ; Helicopter: expensive to acquire, maintain and operate

      Summary: Automated STOL or robotic helicopter in extreme cases. Drones: Are you insane ? Time to get an updated Caribou or four. Perhaps a variation on Honda Jet optimized for STOL strips rather than regional airstrips.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: airships versus drones

        One other thing about airships, the biggest we've got is the Airlander 10. Total payload is 10 tonnes, AFAICS including the crew module, so perhaps five tonnes net cargo. A DHC-4 has a payload of 3.5 tonnes, so why go for the scale and complexity of the airship? I'll believe that the Airlander 50 is real when it flies.

        I don't know what the modern equivalent of a DHC-4 is (Twin Otter looks a bit small for the use we're talking here), but it seems to me that the cheapest way of moving anything heavier than a couple of hundred kg is by a simple, robust low cost aircraft capable of landing on a bush runway.

        1. Gordon861

          Re: airships versus drones

          I think the 'drone' is more likely to be a similar design to the Osprey with four rotors, probably carrying a standardised container cargo which could be swapped out easily for a new payload.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    start up a big umbrella biz

    reinforced to up to 500 kg direct hit from up to 300 m, opens in 0.005 sec upon detection, make them cheap, and you're the next bilionaire. Now, watch the crowdfunding sites" for the first wave (of scammers) promising them bilions to the great unteachable...

    Humans are oh so inventive :(

    1. Rob D.
      Coat

      Re: start up a big umbrella biz

      Is that an explosively opening umbrella in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

      Why are you making that noise?

  6. Elmer Phud

    Cargo culture?

    We just need a cargo net to catch drones in . . .

  7. Chris G Silver badge
    Trollface

    Any idea of the energy cost ratio per kilo/Km for somewhere like New Guinea?

    In the rest of the World if drones mean the dispersal of city populations, then I am against them.

    There are already too many green welly wearers who think the countryside is a big park for their benefit.

    Townies stay home!

  8. Pen-y-gors

    Drone noise?

    We won’t tolerate large, loud drones filling our skies day and night.

    I suspect we won't tolerate small, buzzy drones filling our skies day and night either.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Drone noise?

      I don't think we'll need to. If you think about the practical elements of a delivery, what use is a drone?

      It needs to be able to approach the delivery point safely, it then needs some form of landing zone or standardised receptacle, the drop point needs to be secure (you don't want your delivery being stolen from the delivery point). Anything that has to be signed for is a problem - and even if you can overcome that, will people be willing to "wait in for the drone"?

      In any sort of urban environment, I really can't see an economic use case for drones other than for a subset of homes, and high value cargoes. And if they are used almost exclusively for high value cargoes, the ne'er do wells will quickly work out that there's easy pickings to be had. Whether by jamming, hacking, interception on landing, forcing down with another drone, or simply shooting it down. Or just watching it come in to land, and robbing the recipient in the traditional manner.

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Drone noise?

      I suspect we won't tolerate small, buzzy drones filling our skies day and night either.

      Have a look at places like Manhattan to see what people will tolerate in noise. I can't tolerate it but one heck of lot of people live in the middle of it.

  9. Tim Soldiers

    I love how this article completely ignores the tech which will also enable driver-less lorries and land freight

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      >I love how this article completely ignores the tech which will also enable driver-less lorries and land freight

      I thought most of the investment is being focused on on-road driverless vehicles, not on off-road driverless vehicles, although I'm sure in some scenarios the products of Boston Dynamics will be usable.

  10. Morrie Wyatt
    Black Helicopters

    A drone that can carry 150 Kg of passenger can:

    also fall with a hell of a thud, when (not if) the rotors suddenly stop spinning due to any number of possible causes. Even with some sort of "Dead Man" chute arrangement, you still have a heavy payload that is guaranteed to obey the law of gravity, ending up:

    (a) stuck on a roof,

    (b) in a tree,

    (c) on a busy freeway,

    (d) all of the above.

    Pretty well anywhere other than the intended destination.

    And you can bet that the lawyers will be on standby when it does.

    And as the ability to hover at the intended destination will be an indispensable requirement, two or more spinning rotors are guaranteed to be present, ready to slice and dice their way through any (in)convenient obstacle(s).

  11. fpx
    Black Helicopters

    Nice Myth

    This dream has already fallen flat with Cargolifter. They had the same vision of transporting cargo to hard to reach places (like Alaskan oil rigs) and found out the hard way that demand was not sufficient to pay for the staggering cost of building large craft for that purpose.

    When you're talking about tons of cargo, the additional design cost to design in a pilot's seat is small, and the additional operating cost for the human pilot becomes negligible. (That's one of the reasons why some pilots can command insane salaries -- it doesn't factor in next to the capital costs and fuel costs!)

    Sure, airborne vehicles' advantage is that you don't need infrastructure between points A and B. But there's still some overhead needed at points A and B, like fuel delivery and storage, equipment for repairs, etc. And even without a pilot, you don't want your million dollar drones to crash, so marginalizing safety is not an option.

    Eventually, except in a few rare cases, it will be cheaper to build a land-based network. And there's more innovative solutions beyond asphalt to choose from, such as aearial trams or riverboats.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Nice Myth

      the additional design cost to design in a pilot's seat is small, and the additional operating cost for the human pilot becomes negligible.

      I think we will find that similar rules apply to driverless cars - hence why all the lobbying with the aim to effectively get governments to mandate their usage. However, suspect with cars the approach of using an existing approved vehicle body helps to keep costs in check - hence perhaps an approach that reuses existing airframes and replacing human pilot with autopilot will also reduce the upfront costs.

      Eventually, except in a few rare cases, it will be cheaper to build a land-based network.

      I suspect this is where niche players such as Zipline ( www.flyzipline.com ) come in. The delivery of medical supplies and other high-value and time urgent, small packages needed by disperse or remote communities is an obvious market, where a drone service offers benefits over using a regular piloted air bus. The question as far as I can see is: just what is a small package (weight/size).

      Zipline works by the drone (airplane) being based at a hub and delivering packages to predefined drop points - the package is parachuted in, the drone doesn't land. What isn't clear is how Zipline drones are programmed: do they use a preflown flight path or are they more intelligent and so only need destination co-ordinates, my suspicion is a preflown flight path so logic only needed to process GPS, altitude and match to course.

  12. Spasticus Autisticus

    Range?

    How many minutes are these drones expected to fly for? That's out and back, and how fast are these things? Where will they land in a city? So much pie in the sky - mmmm pie delivered by drone - probably not.

  13. Naselus

    Wrong direction

    The future of goods transport will be underground, not in the sky. Automated vehicles in tunnel networks can be far, far, far, far more energy efficient that flying drones, and can be connected to a grid so they don'e need to carry batteries etc. Airborne drones could be used for final stage delivery (i.e., within an 10-minute or so radius of the depot), but no, there's just too many disadvantages to trying to use them for long-range or bulk delivery work.

    As for Papua New Guinea, there's deep-rooted cultural reasons that capitalism hasn't really taken off there. Instigating a transport revolution isn't likely to override twenty thousand years of gift exchange economics, particularly since the profit margins on the agricultural produce in the mountains will take decades to pay back the capital investment required to set such a system up.

  14. BoldMan

    If there aren't enough good roads in Papua New Guinea build more fucking roads rather than give Silicon Valley twats more scope to fuck up another country's economy.

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