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Drone deliveries pie in the sky, critics say

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Need a book? Call a drone

The world's first unmanned aerial drone controlled by GPS for deliveries is set to launch next year and will reduce costs by flying rental textbooks directly to users.

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A proposal to use drones to deliver textbooks, soft drinks and fast food has been shot down by academics and industry.

Fairfax Media reported last week that Sydney textbook rental service Zookal and start-up drone courier service Flirtey had teamed up to offer a delivery service for textbooks by March 2014. The service is planned to start on campus at Sydney University and expand nationally before extending to other industries, allowing delivery of items weighing up to 2 kilograms.

The Flirtey drone in the sky.

The Flirtey drone in the sky.

It has been called a "pie in the sky" idea by commercial drone operator Coptercam, whose chief pilot Hai Tran believes it won't be technically possible or receive regulatory approval. He says it's "virtually impossible" for Flirtey to conduct drone courier deliveries autonomously today.

Rules for flying drones in Australia stipulate that a pilot must be in command at all times via remote control, that the pilot must keep the drone within his or her line of sight and that the drone stay about 30 metres away from people (other than the pilot) at all times. It must also be kept away from populous areas unless a special licence has been issued.

Academics who study issues around drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have questioned whether the collision detection and avoidance technology used will be viable and if the aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), will approve drones for the purpose of delivery.

"Pie in the sky": Commercial drone operator Coptercam's  chief pilot Hai Tran.

"Pie in the sky": Commercial drone operator Coptercam's chief pilot Hai Tran.

In a statement, CASA said that when it receives an application from Flirtey for flying drones — it has not received one yet — it would assess it on its merits. It said that its requirements included restrictions for operating in controlled areas, populous areas and in proximity to people.

"I wouldn't say it would never get off the ground but in the near foreseeable future I think it's a bit of a pie in the sky idea," Mr Tran said.

"It's a good idea but the technology isn't there yet and the regulations won't allow it. From my interactions with CASA it is very unlikely they will approve it."

Darren Turner from the School of Geography and Environmental Studies with an UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

Darren Turner from the School of Geography and Environmental Studies with an UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). Photo: Peter Mathew

Darren Turner, from the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, who is studying potential uses of drones, said Flirtey's idea was ridiculous.

"The idea of sending one off into the unknown to go and fly over a suburban area and then land where you don't know who is around or what is around … is just ridiculous," Mr Turner said.

"If I was CASA I wouldn't approve it."

Professor Duncan Campbell, director at the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation, a joint venture between the CSIRO and Queensland University of Technology, said he could foresee a future where autonomous drones deliver medical supplies.

But he didn't believe it would be in 2014.

From a technological point of view, it was "not too far down the track. In the order of a number of years," Professor Campbell said.

Mr Turner said CASA "frowned upon" drones near people, buildings or structures. "They have no interest in allowing these things in a realm where they can hurt someone," he said.

Regulation aside, Mr Turner said the idea "actually won't work anyway". It would be easier and cheaper to get in a car and drive textbooks to customers, he said.

He questioned whether Flirtey's use of sonar or laser rangefinders would be viable and said it was "a load of rubbish" to claim the technology would allow drones to avoid CBD obstacles.

Mr Turner also questioned whether regulations would allow the drones to fly out of sight.

"This is going to be [Flirtey's] biggest stumbling point," he said.

Professor Campbell said several technological challenges needed to be addressed.

One issue was working out how to ensure a drone maintained a "robust GPS signal" during flight.

Flirtey founder Matt Sweeney conceded March was an "optimistically ambitious timeframe".

"A lot of people have been saying that this is not possible or that it's going to fail," he said. "So if we do fail then we've met expectations. [But] if we succeed then we're going to change the world and we're going to invent a new industry. That's a gamble that we're prepared to take."

He said that as much as he respected the opinion of the academics and Coptercam, his technology was capable of obstacle avoidance "and right now we're at the inflection point".

Collision detection and avoidance was "a really challenging problem", he agreed, but one he and his team of advanced engineering student graduates had made "really good progress on".

Sonar, laser rangefinders and optical-flow sensors were all being looked at for collision detection and avoidance, he said. Sonar was "particularly exciting" but "not very good at detecting trees", laser rangefinders were "hands-down bleeding technology" that worked well but were quite "heavy and expensive" and optical flow sensors also produced "some good results".

Further reading:

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31 comments

  • Perhaps these gizmos should only fly autonomously on precise mathematical paths through space and time to predefined points ... and guarantee that they could . Australians are too regulatory,too conservative and kill innovation which is why we are seen as backward and colonial with few exports except dumbo dirt. Who invented these stupid rules anyway? Un-elected bum polishing bureaucrats and lawyer politicians . Thank God they didn't decide if Orville Wright could fly at Kittyhawk. They are anti-progressive and should be removed . But then Orville Wright was American like Henry Ford like Edison like Firestone like Westinghouse ..you know the people who gave us our western standard of living . The sooner China takes over the better and sweeps out these dullard Anglo 2nd raters of the British Empire who can't even agree on the time of day.

    Commenter
    Dan
    Date and time
    October 22, 2013, 11:27AM
    • You startup types and your incomplete dreams and desire for publicity.

      Don't preach about the Wright brothers and wanting less regulation. It's there for air safety in a modern world and you'll have to comply - we don't want you killing people.

      You shouldn't have tried for all the publicity before having a demonstrably safe, workable system and CASA approval. I hope this loss of face was worth it.

      Commenter
      David
      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 1:40PM
    • If preventing it crashing into people and injuring/killing them is a stupid rule, give me conservative any day. (Your comment started well but went pear-shaped. It's unfortunate.)

      Commenter
      currybear
      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 1:59PM
    • Apologies folks I agree my comments were out of order . However I do think the idea is workable in remote areas . And in areas where its too dangerous for manned a/c to fly . And can I say to the operators . For God sake throw away those silly RC boxes . Definitely not good for public relations .You need a cockpit .

      Commenter
      Dan
      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 3:43PM
    • Has this idea come about through funding by the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Federal Govts via a deal with the Greens? Earth to our Alien friends, come in buddy - 10-4 buddy.

      Commenter
      enough is enough
      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 6:08PM
    • Well said Dan

      Commenter
      the inconvenient truth
      Date and time
      October 23, 2013, 7:41AM
  • Maybe the commentator is just jealous that they didn't think of it first...in concept, it's a great idea, and in practice, fully automated is possible via way-point navigation combined with telemetrics over 4G - so the only obsticle is public safety, which can be overcome by well designed fail-over systems etc. It might not happen by 2014, but it will happen.

    Commenter
    Kevin
    Location
    Melb
    Date and time
    October 22, 2013, 1:02PM
    • "obsticle", @Kevin? Better hope those that program your "telemetrics" system (you're trying to say 'obstacle' and 'telemetry', by the way) have a better education than your self.
      As to the article, fairfax regularly publish over-the-top stories, aka click.bait.

      Commenter
      The Other Guy
      Location
      Geelong
      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 8:13PM
  • Or just download the textbook instantly. Either pay full price for a permanent copy, or rent it with an expiry date that locks the file unless the subscription is paid.

    Commenter
    Scotty_16
    Date and time
    October 22, 2013, 1:40PM
    • Exactly ! Why pick something as completely obsolete as a book ( a textbook even !! ) which can be easily delivered online ! This is so silly it reeks of a bit of a publicity stunt to see how many gullible experts can be sucked in ??

      Commenter
      Dgm
      Date and time
      October 23, 2013, 12:10AM

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