5 Things Amazon Could Learn From the Military About Drones

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A remote aerial vehicle called Prime Air that Amazon hopes to develop to deliver goods to customers.

Amazon’s plan to offer a drone delivery service—Amazon Prime Air— is all the buzz. On Sunday on 60 Minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a next generation R&D project aimed at delivering packages in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

As a former Army intelligence officer who helped integrate UAVs into my unit’s military operations while deployed, the thought of drones flying over U.S. airspace is cause for concern. But as a civilian (and an online shopper), the thought of UAV delivery service is cause for celebration.

That said, if Amazon is going to make the Prime Air delivery model work, here are 5 things it could learn from the military’s experience using UAVs.

1. Safety First

One reason customers will not receive UAV delivery service any sooner than 2015 is because that is how long Congress gave the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to safely integrate UAVs into U.S. airspace. It is a tall order, considering the FAA estimates that 15,000 UAVs will fly across U.S. airspace by 2020—and 30,000 by 2030.

Amazon may face problems dealing with this air traffic. In a combat environment like Afghanistan, there is relatively little air traffic and the military—which pilots the drones—can control the airspace. However, in the U.S., Amazon will have to rely on the FAA to space out air traffic and clear the way for its book-delivering autonomous helicopters.

What’s more, Amazon expects UAVs to operate within a 10 mile radius of its distribution centers. On the one hand, it will need to use its UAV fleet near areas densely populated enough for the delivery model to make financial sense. On the other hand, densely-populated areas will likely have the most air traffic.

Furthermore, military UAVs have had their fair share of accidents due to mechanical errors such as the loss of a data link between the ground station and aircraft. Therefore, the Prime Air program will need built-in “redundancies” to direct the UAV where to land in case of a break in communication. This is particularly important for Amazon because they are planning on making their UAVs operate autonomously based on pre-programmed GPS coordinates, and that requires additional measures of safety should something go haywire.

2. Murphy’s Law

The key to successfully planning any military operation is recognizing that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the most inopportune time. Amazon’s UAVs are small and are designed to carry up to five pounds, which accounts for 86% of the deliveries that Amazon makes.

But there are additional variables that will affect UAVs beyond the weight of the delivery. For instance, what about weather? UAVs this small are normally not well-suited to handle strong winds or rain. Consequently, Amazon may have to add a caveat to its 30-minute delivery time guarantee. Such a disclaimer might read: “Click and ship in under 30 minutes, except when the sky is not completely clear.” Moreover, the peak-purchasing period is in the winter—when the weather is most likely to affect Amazon’s operations.

3. The Enemy Always Gets a Vote

After the operations officer gives his presentation in a military briefing, normally the intelligence officer explains how the enemy will respond. This process illustrates that there is always someone else out there who can put a wrench in the plan—i.e., the enemy. Although legislators, the FAA, and the public are not Amazon’s enemy, each group could surely put a wrench in Amazon’s plan.

First, federal and state legislators will need to approve Amazon’s plan, because under the current law, using UAVs for “commercial” purposes is prohibited. Second, the FAA will need to authorize Amazon to carry out routine deliveries without requesting permission for each individual delivery. Amazon’s distribution centers and cloud technology allows it to seamlessly process orders and ship them within minutes, but the FAA may not be able to handle the speed at which Amazon operates. Third, public support is important—both in terms of using the delivery service and in terms of not protesting the use of UAVs based on civil liberty grounds. With respect to that last point, it is unlikely there will be a huge uproar based on privacy concerns if Amazon’s UAVs do not have surveillance equipment attached to them, as military UAVs do.

4. Maintaining Secrecy

The military has a fairly sophisticated system of protecting sensitive information. For example, if a UAV falls from the sky, military units already have battle plans in place and quick reaction forces to recover the UAV before someone can steal it and reverse engineer the technology.

Amazon will need to develop ways to protect its trade secrets as well because it is likely to face fierce competition if its delivery model is successful. National competitors such as eBay and local competitors may attempt to replicate Amazon’s business model. Therefore, Amazon will have to fend off those who are currently threatening to shoot the UAVs out of the sky, as well as thieves who might try to pocket Amazon’s devices. In other words, Amazon may need drones to monitor the drones.

5. Branding 101

The military’s UAV branding campaign could best be described as “what not to do.” One of the most common military uses for UAVs is detecting roadside bombs, which saves both soldier and civilian lives on a daily basis. Yet, what receives the most media attention—and rightly so—is the less than 1% of military UAV missions that involve using them for lethal targeting purposes.

It seems Amazon has already mastered the art of branding its new UAV though, which it refers to as the “octocopter.” The day before Cyber Monday, Amazon released the news about its goal of making the delivery service available in 4 to 5 years’ time. If and when Amazon’s plan becomes a reality, instead of standing next to your loved one under the mistletoe, you can stand under an octocopter dropping your holiday gifts from the sky.

Pierre Hines is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Views expressed are his own.