Remote-flight enthusiasts see flaws in Amazon's drone delivery plan

Two Goshen residents use drones for other purposes.

Posted on Dec. 4, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Dec. 4, 2013 at 12:01 p.m.

GOSHEN — Ryan Rittenhouse, a Goshen College employee, has flown his remote-controlled helicopters around campus before. But his hobby attracted a new sort of attention on Tuesday, when a passing student called out, “Ryan, you going to be delivering for Amazon with that?”

He won't be, but Rittenhouse does have a few thoughts about Amazon's recent announcement that it could soon deliver packages via drone — an unmanned flying robot that uses technology similar to his devices.

“I'm always excited about more of this getting into the mainstream,” Rittenhouse said, patting one of his handmade machines sitting nearby. “But I'm concerned about it being done poorly.”

Rittenhouse, who uses his devices mostly to shoot photos and videos for fun, said the logistics involved in Amazon's proposal are complicated. The most obvious issue, he said, is with the weight of the packages.

He's attached a 3-pound camera to his devices before with no issues. He's also used them to deliver sandwiches and drinks to friends near him at Frisbee tournaments.

“I could have run over there in the same amount of time,” Rittenhouse admitted. “But it's funnier to drop a foot-long sandwich on someone.”

But he doesn't know if people will be willing to pay for the special 30-minute air delivery for an item light enough to be delivered by the drones.

Another issue he has with Amazon's plan is safety. The devices, he said, could run into people or property and cause some damage.

“I'm excited about (the announcement) too, but it will be a while before it can be executed well,” he said.

Stuart Meade, of Goshen-based Stuart Meade Photography, used small radio-controlled airplanes to take photos for “a number of years” before he decided to stop due to liability concerns.

Meade said he combined two of his passions, flying and photography, to build the planes. The planes are similar, he said, to the devices that Amazon hopes to use to deliver orders.

But Meade wonders if the technology to make Amazon's plan a reality exists.

“One of the problems is that the lithium batteries they are using don't have the capacity to be flying packages, they say under 2 pounds, any distance at all,” Meade said. “Also, if you are flying with GPS, you have to have the exact coordinates. GPS is only accurate within 10 to 15 feet. So you may not get the package on your front porch, you may get it on your roof or on your car.”

Meade also thinks the unmanned drones won't have the technology to avoid other flying objects and obstacles such as trees and telephone wires. He pointed out that some neighborhoods — like the one he lives in — have so many trees that a flying drone may have issues getting through.

“I could not go out to my street and fly one of my radio-controlled airplanes ... and I can see it,” he said.

Meade admits he is a little less excited about Amazon's announcement than some.

“They wanted to create a stir, and they certainly have,” he said. “It's possible that they could deliver a package in the near future to someone using this method, but it's not something we will be seeing all the time.”

Amazon claims on its website that “one day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.”

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