The last time I wrote about Amazon Prime Air was almost 2 years ago to the day and back then it seemed to be little more than a flight of fancy. Back then drones, whilst still being somewhat commonplace, were still something of an emerging space especially when it came to regulations and companies making use of them. Indeed the idea instantly ran afoul of the FAA, something which Amazon was surprisingly blase about at the time. Still there had been musings of them continuing development of the program and today they’ve shown off another prototype drone that they might use in the future.
The drone is an interesting beast, capable of both VTOL and regular flight. This was most likely done to increase the effective range of the craft as traditional flight is a lot less energy intensive than 100% VTOL flight. The new prototype drone has a stated range of 16 miles (about 25KM) which you’d probably have to cut in half for the return trip. Whilst that’s likely an order of magnitude above the previous prototype they showcased 2 years ago it still means that a serviced based on them will either be very limited or Amazon is planning a massive shakeup of its distribution network.
Of course the timing of this announcement (and the accompanying video below) mere hours before the yearly Cyber Monday sale starts in earnest can’t be denied. Amazon Prime Air is undeniably a marketing tactic, one that’s worked well enough in the past to warrant them trying it again in order to boost sales on this day. On the flip side Amazon does seem pretty committed to the idea, with their various proposals for airspace usage and “dozens of prototypes” in the works, however until they start offering the service to real customers it’s going to be easy to remain skeptical.
Last time I wrote about Amazon Prime Air one of my local readers mentioned that a similar service was looking to take off here in Australia. The offering was going to be a joint effort between Flirtey, a delivery drone developer, and Zookal a local text book sale and rent service. They were targeting mid last year for their first delivery by drone however that never came to pass. Indeed an article earlier this year was all I could dredge up on the service where they still have yet to use the service commercially. To their credit Flirtey did make the first drone delivery in the USA in July this year so the technology is there it just needs to be put to use.
Whether or not something like this will see widespread adoption however is something I’m still not sure on. Right now the centralized distribution models that most companies employ simply don’t work with the incredibly limited range that most drones have. Even if the range issue could be solved I’m still not sure if it would be economical to use them, unless the delivery fees were substantially higher (and then how many customers would pay for that?). Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’d be incredibly cool to get something delivered by drone, but at this point I’m still not 100% sold on the idea that it can be done economically.
Reducing the cost of getting things into orbit isn’t easy, as the still extremely high cost of getting cargo to orbit can attest. For the most part this is because of the enormous energy requirement for getting things out of Earth’s gravity well and nearly all launch systems today being single use. Thus the areas where there are efficiencies to be gained are somewhat limited, that is unless we start finding novel methods of getting things into orbit. Without question SpaceX is at the forefront of this movement, having designed some of the most efficient rocket engines to date. Their next project is something truly novel, one that could potentially drop the total cost of their launches significantly.
Pictured above is SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone, essentially a giant flat barge that’s capable of holding its position steady in the sea thanks to some onboard thrusters, the same many deployable oil rigs use. At first glance the purpose of such a craft seems unclear as what use could they have for a giant flat surface out in the middle of the ocean? Well as it turns out they’re modifying their current line of Falcon rockets to be able to land on such a barge, allowing the first stage of the rocket to be reused at a later date. In fact they’ve been laying the foundations of this system for some time now, having tested it on their recent ORBCOMM mission this year.
Hitting a bullseye like that, which is some 100m x 30m, coming back from orbit is no simple task. Currently SpaceX is only able to get their landing radius down to an area of 10KM or so, several orders of magnitude higher than what the little platform provides. Even with the platform being able to move and with the new Falcon rockets being given little wings to control the descent SpaceX doesn’t put their chances higher than 50% of getting a successful landing the first time around. Still whilst the opportunity for first time success might be low SpaceX is most definitely up to the challenge and it’ll only be a matter of time before they get it.
The reason why this is such a big deal is that any stage of the rocket that can be recovered and reused drastically reduces the costs of future launches. Many people think that the fuel would likely be the most expensive part of the rocket however that’s not the case, it’s most often all the other components which are the main drivers of cost for these launch systems. Thus if a good percentage of that craft is fully reusable you can avoid incurring that cost on every launch and, potentially, reduce turnaround times as well. All of these lead to a far more efficient program that can drive costs down, something that’s needed if we want to make space more accessible.
It just goes to show how innovative SpaceX is and how lucky the space industry is to have them. A feat like this has never been attempted before and the benefits of such a system would reach far across all space based industries. I honestly can’t wait to see how it goes and, hopefully, see the first automated landing from space onto a sea platform ever.
Think about about any of the cyberpunk/dystopian futures that you’ve come across and there’s one thing that they all have in common: the seemingly drab, million shades of brown colour palettes. Now that’s probably the most accurate representation of what would happen in those circumstances what with the downfall of society and all but if some of the latest research to come out of Portugal is anything to go by our future robot overlords could be sporting all sorts of pretty colours.
You know, in order to co-ordinate better so they can eliminate us fleshy meat creatures from the planet:
Whilst the technology is a long way from creating a terminator covered in disco lights it is a rather interesting bit of technology, especially with the cross over between a flying control robot and its minions on the ground. Most systems I’ve seen like this before usually rely on a whole bunch of pre-programmed routines with one of the swarm making itself the leader of the pack in order to make the decisions. Whilst this isn’t too different from that due to the use of a flying master the selection process for targeting a specific robot on the ground is pretty ingenious, especially considering how simple it is.
One thing I’m wondering about though is how effective such a system could be in a much noisier environment than their pristine lab environment. Differences in colour are pretty easy to detect when there’s a high amount of contrast like there is in that environment however it starts to get tricky when there’s a whole bunch of other, similar colours in the near vicinity. There’s also the issue if they use it outside that there will be a lot of ambient light that has the potential to make the flying robot’s job a lot harder. These aren’t insurmountable issues though and you could probably solve both by just ramping up the brightness of the rings or some clever engineering tricks with the light sources (like using specific frequencies and filtering out everything else).
Still be on the lookout for any vaguely human shaped things covered in LEDs. No telling what it could get up to 😉