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Delivery Drones and Battling Robots: What Lies Ahead?

Amazon recently caused a media frenzy when it released news that it was testing delivery drones to improve its delivery speed and efficiency for customers. The mental image of tiny robots dropping parcels to customers from the sky was just too futuristic to reconcile with today's realities of couriers and postmen.

So is this just an incredible new development, combined with some superb PR and a healthy dose of imagination? Or is the industry really reaching a stage where delivery drones and other forms of service robot are likely to become a reality in the near future?

Already, Google has acquired seven robotics companies in just 18 months, suggesting that the world's internet giants do at least intend to position themselves as leaders in the field. These companies include Bot & Dolly which develops robotics for film-making and precise motion, Industrial Perception, that produces vision-guided robots to automate warehousing functions, and Meka Robotics, which builds robot parts that are perceived as 'safe and friendly' by humans. So with the industry's great engineering and scientific minds hooking up with large commercial funders, what does the future hold for us and droids?

Amazon's developments
Amazon's drones have been named Octocopters and will be designed to deliver parcels of up to 2.3kg within just half an hour of a placed order. However, the space age service isn't expected to be up and running for another five years and the USA's Federal Aviation Administration will first need to rubber stamp the use of non-manned drones for civilian services.

Amazon is certainly keen about the potential of its Octocopters however, and is keen to deploy the drones commercially as soon as the regulatory framework has been approved. Certainly as a driver of growth and efficiency, the idea of these automated drones is highly attractive, but there may be other obstacles to overcome in addition to US regulation.

The future?
Civilian airspace is anticipated to be open for drone use in America by 2015, and then in Europe by the following year. This regulation process is required to avoid clashes with military, police or commercial airspace usage and reduce injury risks to those on the ground. One concern is that these droids lack spatial awareness and would lack the technology required to identify and avoid passing people. This could pose a significant barrier to adoption in densely-populated cities and towns. Transit security will also be an issue, with the risk of individuals simply pilfering passing droids a potential outcome, as well as the logistical difficulties of delivery to high rise buildings and flats.

Google and robotics
At this stage, Google says that it isn't intending to deliver the resulting product commercially to customers, but it has taken on a team of robotics engineers from Japan, who specialise in the robotics field of humanoids, highly lifelike robots that are used in Japan for product demonstrations, customer greetings, automated messaging and other commercial and service purposes. Google is also researching the self-drive car, which poses the potential spectacle of courier services delivered by car driving humanoid-robots.

Other developments
Amazon and Google aren't the only businesses forging ahead in the drone race. Zookal, a rental textbook provider in Australia, are planning to use delivery drones in 2015 if the necessary approval is gained from the country's own Civil Aviation Authority. Australian regulations are already one step ahead of the game in permitting the deployment of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes.

Thoughts and reactions
Many scientists and engineers are delighted about the developments, welcoming the imminent arrival of personalised robotics and new technologies into the market place, including Professor Sethu Vijayakumar who directs the robotics laboratory at the University of Edinburgh. He explained that sensory and movement systems for such technologies had made great advances, and that adoption by large businesses such as Amazon and Google means that the potential for further development towards commercialisation grows strong, with elements including modular design, standardisation and software integration developing faster.

However, others will have more reticent views about a world with increased robotic integration, whether that is the airspace authorities, security controllers, ethicists, or those simply concerned at the idea of a robotic race of service providers and the prospect of a rapidly-approaching science fiction-esque world.

Who will win?
Those who champion progress and development in all likelihood.
After all, just a generation ago the concept of the internet seemed incredible. In 1999 we were inundated with panic stories about the millennium bug, and there have been similar panics and fears around the majority of scientific and technological advances, from IVF and reproductive technologies, to genetically modified meat. As with all progress, stringent government regulation, collaborative and sensible academic approaches and responsible developments will be key. That, and the ultimate ability of mankind to develop robotics in a responsible, planned and considered way.

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