How Amazon’s Drone Plans Could Work, According to An Expert

“We’re convinced that it’s going to be the next big paradigm in transportation.”

National Journal
Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic
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Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic
Dec. 2, 2013, 5:36 p.m.

Two and a half years ago, An­dreas Rap­to­poulos foun­ded Mat­ter­net, a com­pany de­voted to cre­at­ing a net­work of drones that could de­liv­er light­weight pack­ages. It’s start­ing with med­ic­al ap­plic­a­tions, with plans to ex­tend from there to “bring to the world its next-gen­er­a­tion trans­port­a­tion sys­tem.” To hear Rap­to­poulos tell it, when the his­tor­ies are writ­ten in a few dec­ades, people will think: elec­tric grid, road in­fra­struc­ture, tele­phone lines, In­ter­net, mo­bile phones, and … tiny fly­ing drones.

“We think about it not just as a point-to-point de­liv­ery, but as a net­work. What can you do if you have many sta­tions of these fly­ing drones?” Rap­to­poulos said. “What can you do with a sys­tem like this in the de­vel­op­ing world, in our cit­ies, in our mega­cit­ies? We’re con­vinced that it’s go­ing to be the next big paradigm in trans­port­a­tion.”

Of course, last night, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos re­vealed Amazon Prime Air, his com­pany’s plans to use drones at some point in the fu­ture to de­liv­er pack­ages to cus­tom­ers.

It all sounds a little crazy. And we can all think of many ob­jec­tions to drone de­liv­ery net­works. They won’t have enough range! People will shoot them down! What if they crash! They can’t op­er­ate in places where you can’t get a steady GPS sig­nal!

Giv­en that Amazon seems un­likely to give real an­swers to these ques­tions, I con­tac­ted Rap­to­poulos, who has spent the last sev­er­al years deeply en­gaged with these prob­lems since work­ing on a pro­ject at Sin­gu­lar­ity Uni­versity in 2011.

First off, why cre­ate a net­work of fly­ing drones at all?

“You have the tech­no­logy that can help the most dif­fi­cult part of de­liv­ery: The last-mile prob­lem. You have a light­weight pack­age go­ing to a single des­tin­a­tion. You can­not ag­greg­ate pack­ages. It’s still way too com­plic­ated and ex­pens­ive. It’s very en­ergy in­ef­fi­cient,” Rap­to­poulos said. “UAVs or drones deal with the prob­lem of do­ing this very ef­fi­ciently with ex­tremely low cost and high re­li­ab­il­ity. It’s the best an­swer to the prob­lem. The ra­tio of your vehicle to your pay­load is very low.”

Part of the ar­gu­ment is that our cur­rent last-mile de­liv­ery sys­tem can seem kind of ri­dicu­lous, at least from an en­ergy ef­fi­ciency point of view.

As Rap­to­poulos put it: “In the fu­ture, we think it’s go­ing to make more sense to have a bottle of milk de­livered to your house from Whole Foods rather than get in your car and drive two tons of met­al on a con­ges­ted road to go get it.”

Of course, we could also build walk­able neigh­bor­hoods that don’t re­quire driv­ing as of­ten as we do, but walkab­il­ity re­quires dens­ity — and even places like San Fran­cisco some­times balk at the sorts of build­ings that en­tails. And we’ve got a lot of low-dens­ity in­fra­struc­ture in place that isn’t go­ing away any­time soon.

How quickly could this all hap­pen?

The tech­no­logy is get­ting there. It is not as good as people as­sume. There is a lot of hype around what drones can do today.

Amazon has said their timeline is de­pend­ent on rule­mak­ing for ci­vil­ian drone flights by the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “We hope the FAA’s rules will be in place as early as some­time in 2015,” their web­site con­tends. “We will be ready at that time.”

But even Rap­to­poulos, a boost­er of the tech­no­logy, is skep­tic­al of that timeline.

“It’s not go­ing to hap­pen in the U.S. in the next two or three years. Even if you’re op­tim­ist­ic, it’s not go­ing to hap­pen be­fore three to five years,” he said. “Our as­sump­tion is that this may hap­pen in oth­er places in the world first. It may hap­pen in the glob­al south in coun­tries that are de­vel­op­ing and don’t have al­tern­at­ives. There, it’s not about cost re­duc­tion but giv­ing ac­cess when you don’t have ac­cess at all.”

Is this tech­no­logy any­where close to ready for mass de­ploy­ment?

“The tech­no­logy is get­ting there. It is not as good as people as­sume. There is a lot of hype around what drones can do today. We see it in bi­o­tech­no­logy. We see it in ro­bot­ic tech­no­logy in par­tic­u­lar,” Rap­to­poulos said. “We need to re­solve a lot of things be­fore we can get to the point where it is re­li­able or ef­fect­ive.”
Mat­ter­net has de­veloped half a dozen drone pro­to­types and tested them in Haiti and the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic. “The next step is to op­er­ate a net­work for a month in a real loc­a­tion where it solves a real prob­lem,” Rap­to­poulos said. “The next big item on our cal­en­dars is how we can get that tri­al — and we think it’s go­ing to hap­pen in the first half of next year.”

But what about the range of the tech­no­logy? The bat­ter­ies aren’t good enough, are they?

“We star­ted at 10 kilo­met­ers and got to 20 kilo­met­ers. Even without as­sum­ing a bat­tery break­through, we see a 5x in­crease in the range. If you factor in some ad­vance­ments to bat­tery de­vel­op­ment, you might see an­oth­er 3x in­crease to 300 kilo­met­ers,” he con­ten­ded.

In the near term, Mat­ter­net is still try­ing to get to 100 kilo­met­ers by op­tim­iz­ing their sys­tem and sub­sys­tems. But Rap­to­poulos is op­tim­ist­ic that it will hap­pen. “There are quad­copters out there that can do 50 kilo­met­ers a day, but they cost 10x what our tar­get cost is,” he said. “How can you get the tech­no­logy bet­ter while keep­ing the cost down? Tech­no­logy is pretty good at that. It’s in­ev­it­able it’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

Amazon

But what about re­li­ab­il­ity?

“We need to design these vehicles to make sure they don’t rep­res­ent a pub­lic risk. If we’re able to do that, we’re ready for prime­time,” Rap­to­poulos re­spon­ded. “The way to un­lock reg­u­lat­ory ap­prov­al is to show with really good data, 99.9999999 — sev­en nines — per­cent re­li­ab­il­ity. Then, of course, you’ll have reg­u­lat­ory ap­prov­al.”

So far, he doesn’t think that any of the burrito or pizza de­liv­ery stunts qual­i­fy as any­thing close to a real solu­tion to the de­liv­ery ques­tion.

“People say­ing, ‘We’re do­ing this kind of de­liv­ery in China.’ Or talk­ing about burri­tos, pizza, ta­cos, whatever. All this stuff is BS. In or­der to get the de­liv­er­ies work­ing as a sys­tem, the drones need to be re­li­able. Cars are re­li­able. Planes are re­li­able.”

He con­tin­ued, “There are three things you’re try­ing to op­tim­ize for re­li­ab­il­ity: time, de­vel­op­ment, and keep­ing the cost per vehicle down. The more time and money and cost per vehicle you al­low, the bet­ter the re­li­ab­il­ity. For Amazon’s ap­plic­a­tion to make sense, the vehicle cost should be be­low $20,000. If its $100,000, it’s not cost-ef­fect­ive any­more.”

But he saw re­li­ab­il­ity as far from an in­sur­mount­able prob­lem. “It’s the same thing we have with every tech­no­logy. We know we’ve been able to build much more com­plex ma­chines. A 777 has thou­sands of mov­ing parts, versus eight for a quad­copter. But the ques­tion is how quickly, for what level of money, for what re­li­ab­il­ity. These are the com­pet­ing factors.”

But won’t you get sued if one crashes?

His com­pany’s plan, too, is to start de­ploy­ing in places where the reg­u­lat­ory and lit­ig­a­tion risks are lower. “The ap­plic­a­tion changes your re­quire­ment of re­li­ab­il­ity,” Rap­to­poulos said. “The FAA may re­quire an­oth­er level than au­thor­it­ies in Haiti. If you lose a vehicle in Pa­lo Alto, you may be sued for mil­lions of dol­lars. If you lose a vehicle in Haiti, you may not be sued at all. “

But maybe, Rap­to­poulos con­tends, there are ways to in­teg­rate drones in­to the air­space that would present a lower risk to every­one. “Maybe there is a way to fly these things on routes where you don’t risk any­thing where you lose them. It will take that kind of in­nov­a­tion. [To us] it makes sense to start this first in rur­al places and maybe in the third world. Then once we fig­ure out how to do this at scale, we can bring it here.”

What are the spe­cif­ic things that can be done to in­crease re­li­ab­il­ity?

“There are a lot of oc­to­copters and a lot of quad­copters, but how do you design one that has the right re­dund­an­cies? Should the vehicle have a para­chute so when it has a cata­stroph­ic fail­ure, it doesn’t just fall out of the sky? If you have one fail­ure, can you dia­gnose and get it to a land­ing spot?”

Some of those prob­lems may be solved by in­creas­ing the soph­ist­ic­a­tion of the ana­lyt­ics they have on each drone. “How well can we pre­dict fail­ures? If we’ve flown 2.5 thou­sand hours and we have this kind of tele­met­ric data, I might know I should re­tire the vehicle.”

And each en­vir­on­ment brings its own chal­lenges.

“You have to worry about spe­cif­ic prob­lems in spe­cif­ic en­vir­on­ments. In Haiti, you have to worry about dust. If you want to work in San Fran­cisco, you have to have worry about GPS sig­nals be­ing lost be­cause of the ter­rain.”

As­sum­ing you can work out the tech­no­logy, why won’t people just shoot them out of the sky?

“They fly at 400 feet between 45-65 kilo­met­ers an hour and they are very small. At that height, you can barely see them. You can­not hear them. It’s like a tiny dot mov­ing in the sky. That’s the prac­tic­al as­pect of the ques­tion. It’s not go­ing to be a bunch of kids do­ing it for fun,” Rap­to­poulos said, rain­ing on every kid’s parade.

“The second point is that it’s il­leg­al,” he said. “The reas­on we’re not shoot­ing oth­er mov­ing things with guns is be­cause it’s not something that’s leg­al. It is more chal­len­ging to rely on that frame­work in a place like Haiti or Kenya or Mali. The risk there is high­er.”

But couldn’t the drones get taken out when they land?

“As you poin­ted out, the vul­ner­able part of the mis­sion is when they come down,” he re­spon­ded. “In our case, they do a ver­tic­al des­cent and then they go out again. And those loc­a­tions need to be pro­tec­ted.”

Think­ing about the de­vel­op­ing world con­texts where Mat­ter­net is work­ing, he con­tin­ued. “You need to have them owned by people who use the sys­tem, and then you tap in­to the so­cial dy­nam­ics. We’re not plan­ning to set up the net­works in loc­al places. We’re just provid­ing the tech­no­logy. So, they have to be owned by people in the de­vel­op­ing world that have the right so­cial status,” he said. “It would be people on the ground who un­der­stand how their loc­a­tion works. Those people are the ex­perts on the ground. They know how to read the coun­try and pro­tect their as­sets.”

What do you think of the reg­u­lat­ory hurdles in the U.S.?

“We’ve just had a pub­lic state­ment from a big com­pany they want it to hap­pen. Pub­lic ac­cept­ance goes hand in hand with reg­u­la­tion. There are many reas­ons that the pub­lic will see these as the wave of the fu­ture,” he said. “But we can­not [make that case] that if we can­not guar­an­tee to the pub­lic that this is a safe thing to be fly­ing over our heads and our chil­dren.”

So, let’s say you can fly a few drone de­liv­er­ies, does this ac­tu­ally work as a big busi­ness, the way Amazon seems to be ima­gin­ing?

“Scale is a chal­lenge in it­self. For Amazon to do this, they don’t get to do 10 or 100 de­liv­er­ies a day, they get to do thou­sands or hun­dreds of thou­sands of de­liv­er­ies a day. How you re­solve the scale is­sue is a ques­tion,” Rap­to­poulos said. “But we’re pretty good at solv­ing those chal­lenges as a tech­nic­al civil­iz­a­tion.”

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