The problems Amazon faces with delivery drones

A prototype of Amazon's delivery drone service

A prototype of Amazon’s drone for delivery service

Every time I meet someone and they find out what we do at Float, they ask “So planning on getting into deliveries? I’ve heard Amazon is headed that direction!”. While it’s nice of people to think of us on the same level of capability as Amazon (maybe someday!), they’re much more brave than we are to take on this kind of task. So that’s what I want to briefly explore (in laymen’s terms), the problems Amazon is going to run into and how they might try to fix it.

The first problem really has to do with range. Basically, how far can the drone make it from the departure and reliably return. This has to do with both signal strength as well as battery life. Contrary to common thought, the battery life will likely be the more limiting factor: Ultra High Frequency (UFH) allows for a citywide distance (Team Blacksheep, a company owned by Raphael Pirker, currently holds the record at just over 27 miles), though it seems more likely that Amazon will continue to improve upon a system that uses cellular towers as antenna and would allow the drones to fly anywhere there’s reliable cell signal. The controls would simply hand off from tower to tower in the same way your cell phone doesn’t miss a beat when you’re taking on the phone while driving down the highway. Battery life typically lies in the 20-30 minute range for maximum times on most craft, but that can be significantly changed by external factors like a headwind or extreme temperatures, keeping in mind that once the product is delivered, the job is only half done. However, I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to be the player that makes significant improvements in battery life.

The second issue relates to the first: the drone’s capacity/payload. While it seems Amazon has done the research on this and understands the majority of the products being ordered on their site fit into the weight class required to go up and get an appropriate distance away with the drone (keep in mind the more weight, the less battery, the less distance). While there’s a lot of math that will need to be automated, I think the biggest issue could be the mounting of the product being delivered to the drone. Drones work best when the weight is equally balanced between the motors but just as every product will have a different weight, that weight will be distributed differently as well (think of a hammer) and could have negative effects.

The third issue for the drone services is the navigation of the craft, both flying and landing. In their most recent commercial, it appeared the end user had some sort of landing pad for the craft to identify the most appropriate landing zone, in theory making the customer responsible for finding an area that was clear of trees and powerlines etc. While the assumption is that the drones will be flying autonomously, it wouldn’t be impossible for an “air traffic controller’ of sorts to be notified at the time of a drones arrival to give a quick visual inspection and approval for landing. Navigating safely and reliably will be another test for their drones. It’s not enough for the drones to effectively deliver only 98% of the time because when something goes wrong 2% of the time there’s a lot of potential for damage to property or individuals, not to mention the drone itself. When a self driving car breaks down, it can still pull over to the side of the road. When a drone breaks down, it might not even be able to continue flying and simply fall to the ground. A drone large enough to carry what Amazon plans on carrying would be able to go through a windshield pretty easily. Liability and reliability is going to be a big player on whether these drones ever get off the ground.

So in short, Amazon has a lot of technical work ahead for it and while solving technical problems isn’t beyond a company like Amazon, solving those problems while keeping the solution light enough and small enough to fit on a delivery drone is a whole new solution. I look forward to seeing their progress, as the success of the program could be the final push making drones a common site in the American airways.

How do drones work?

How Do Drones Work?

The past couple of posts we’ve talked about what we call drones, and  some of the worries about drones but this week we’re going to give a fairly non-technical look at how drones work. Getting an idea of how something works gives you a leg up on understanding how it can be used most effectively in the civilian and commercial worlds. To do this, we’re going to reverse engineer and work backwards.

Drone propellers and motors

The thing(s) that keep the drones in the air are the propellers/rotors (thought technically rotors flex to help control the vehicle, drone propellers don’t flex. That doesn’t stop people from calling them rotors!). They spin at various speeds to help the drone hover as well as move all different directions. If we’re talking about a quadrocopter with four propellers (props), the front two propellers can slow down while the rear two speed up, causing the drone to lean forward and begin to move in that direction. Various other combinations allow the drone to slide to the left or fight as well as turn side to side.

The propellers are attached to the motors which provide the physical movement for the props. They transfer the electrical energy they receive into motion. The huge majority of motors you’ll see on any modern drone are electrical motors and they have various “kV” ratings, that is, number of rotations per volt. An average motor speed is in the 800-1100 kV rating, but they go much lower and much higher, to be sure.

Drone avionics

Each of the motors are attached to Electronic Speed Controllers (ESC’s) which govern the amount of electricity reaches the motors. The more electricity, the faster the motor spins, the more force the prop creates. The “orders” for each ESC come from the Flight Controller, which essentially serves as the brains of the drone. The Flight Controller takes any commands it’s given and translates that into the technical details for each ESC. The flight controller also provides the computation necessary to keep the craft level when it’s not receiving any input as well as incorporate the GPS data (if there is a GPS attached) to keep the craft located where it’s supposed to be located. Some flight controllers are even able to steer the craft 100% autonomously, based on a waypoint map a pilot creates perhaps, though technology is advancing where drones are able to see objects in front of them and avoid them (‘detect and avoid’).

Drone transmitters and batteries

The final two major parts of the equation on the drone are the remote control receiver and the battery. The receiver listens for the commands from the transmitter which the pilot has in their hands. They use the transmitter to fly the craft as well as interact with various additional items on the drone…cameras, sensors, etc. The receiver hears those commands (most of the time!) and tells the flight controller, and the flight controller acts accordingly. The battery supplies continuous DC power to the drone, powering all the electronics on board and essentially serving as the gas tank. As the battery drains, the flight life of the drone follows. If the pilot doesn’t pay attention to his battery, he risks his drone falling out of the sky once there’s not enough energy left to spin the motors fast enough.

In another post we’ll talk about some of the additional systems that a person can attach to a drone (cameras with transmitters to send video back tothe pilot, sensors that can measure data through a variety of means, even small arms that can carry supplies and release them on command to people in need below) to make it more resourceful, but these are the basic essentaily you need to get a drone in the air and keep it there! As always, if you see a drone owner out in the wild and have questions, we love to talk about our drones and would love for your to stop by!

Drone privacy and spying concerns

Drones are the Worst Spy Machines Ever

Can drones spy on you?

One of the biggest issues I think anyone that’s ever heard of drones (but never really interacted with them) has with them is the privacy issues. While there certainly are a number of true privacy issues that will need to be addressed as the FAA continues on their path towards getting more permanent regulations in place, most people fear a drone peeking through their windows or photographing them while they lay in their skinnies in the back yard. There are a couple of problems with these scenarios though.

First, drones aren’t exactly quiet

The most common civilian drones that someone is likely to run into (no pun intended!) are about the size of a basketball, give or take, and have four propellers on them. These make so much noise that you can hear them above your house while you’re inside and can hear them even up to 300-400 ft. above you when you’re outside. Even a drone the size of your hand makes enough noise to be the center of attention in any living room (yes, you can fly your drones indoors!). So no drone is going to sneak up to your window and peek through without you hearing it.

Second, while maybe 50% of drones out there have a video feed, the feed is poor resolution and choppy at best

Drones equipped with video feeds going back  to the operator (FPV – First person view) tend to have poor video resolution and a choppy feed at best. Think of the days when you were trying to tune your rabbit ears to get a decent signal on that channel that never comes through well and you’ll have a reasonable idea what flying FPV is like. If there’s someone under a drone in a bikini, odds are the pilot would run into a tree before he got much of a look at anything.

So overall, when you hear about privacy concerns (especially with residential property) and drones, know that most of the things that people typically worry about aren’t going to be a problem in the drone sphere. The drone owners around you want to use their skills for good rather than look over your fence! And as always, feel free to go up and chat with any drone owners you see, they’re usually more than happy to talk about their drones!

Proper drone terminology UAV vs drone vs UAS

Drones vs. UAV and Other Names

So it seems one of the first problems you run into when you talk to someone about drones (or insert your favorite term for them here) is what do you call them? Drones is the term most people seem to know them by but others are pretty adamant about referring to them by another name.

We’re talking about any unmanned aircraft that carries any payload and any weight at takeoff

We’ll take a look at some of these names and come back around to why Float Avionics has settled on the term ‘drone.’

The most common technical sounding name behind ‘drone’ is UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

The terminology is pretty easily explainable and a lot of people aslo use UAS or Unmanned Aerial System, though some people (the Department of Defense in particular) define UAS as Unmanned Aircraft System, but you get the point. None of these are inaccurate in what we refer to when we’re talking about drones, whether they’re autonomous (meaning they fly by themselves, autopilot basically) or entirely controlled by the pilot at all times, whether they’re military or civilian or commercially used.

The other thread of thought often refers to drones as a ____-rotor/copter

For example, quadrotor, octocopter, multirotor, that sort of thing. Similar to how we might describe various vehicles as duallys or 18 wheelers, it’s really based around a physical description. The number of rotors typically is connected with the ability to lift more weight but what the purpose of extra payload is (aerial filming, surveying, inspections etc.) isn’t really clear.

The argument against using the term ‘drones’ seems most commonly put forth by those who worry that people unfamiliar with civilian or commercial drones will mistake them for their military counterparts which are much larger but cause significantly more damage, albeit deliberately. We at Float Avionics don’t really see it that way. Of course people are familiar with military drones but it doesn’t seem that the first thing that pops into their head when they hear someone on the news mention the term ‘drone’ as a large military aircraft but rather a small phantom or other ‘multirotor’ drone.

So in the end, we’re sticking with ‘drone’

It’s the term that the most people are most familiar with and it generally encompasses all the various kind of drones/UAV/UAS/Multirotors that you could bump into and that we could use for any kind of job. It’s the general term, like saying ‘I’m headed to the car’ when what you’re heading toward is really a truck wit ha giant suspension life. Certainly not a ‘car,’ it’s just the term you use…and it’s here to stay.