Amazon gets in the drone zone

14 November 2014 -


E-retail giant rallies University of Cambridge students to staff roster, as investment flows into firm’s Prime Air delivery programme – but could regulators intervene?

Jermaine Haughton

Leading online retailer Amazon is expanding its research and development facilities in Cambridge to provide its Prime Air delivery-drones project with a personnel boost. Specialist news site TechCrunch reported this week that Amazon is planning to grow its scientific units in the city, following its acquisition two years ago of Cambridge-based speech-tech startup, Evi Technologies.

Amazon’s venture shows just how innovatively it is thinking, in terms of how to broaden out its customer services. And while Prime Air aims to quicken deliveries to customers through the use of small, lightweight drones, the firm’s investment in speech technology will allow customers to order products through voice recognition.

Recruiting under the Evi Technologies name, Amazon has plastered ads across the University of Cambridge campus, seeking posts including a Quality Assurance Engineer, a Senior Technical Program Manager and various software developer roles. By beefing up its presence in Cambridge and hiring new staff, Amazon could open itself up to other technological advances that could feature within its services, such as computer vision technology and augmented reality.

However, Amazon’s plans to implement Prime Air could face resistance from airspace regulators, in light of US research that indicates the skies could be starting to get a bit cluttered. A report from the Federal Aviation Administration has unearthed evidence of small drones flying too close to other planes, helicopters and airfields, posing collision risks. The FAA says that controlling drones is important, as if they are used incorrectly they may crash into planes or get sucked into their engines, as most aren’t visible on radar to air traffic controllers.

“It should not be a matter of luck that keeps an airplane and a drone apart,” said Rory Kay, a training captain at a major airline and a former safety committee chairman with the Air Line Pilots Association. “So far we've been lucky.” The FAA requires operators of drones and model aircraft to keep flights under 400 feet in altitude, firmly within sight and at least five miles away from any airport.

A separate US report has also emerged showing that drones have become the target of privacy campaigners, who want the public to have greater input on how drones are used by surveillance agencies. In San Jose, for example, the police bomb squad is set to use a new drone across the city – but the California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union says that officials must be transparent about its use to protect people’s privacy.

Richard Kanda of San Jose’s Asian law Alliance said that he welcomes the call for more public information. “It really sends the wrong image about the San Jose Police Department. We don’t want it to be a militarised police department. We want to have a community-policing kind of department.” IN wake of the questions, the department has apologised about the secrecy surrounding its purchase of the drone.

Considering the pressure that civil liberties groups around the world routinely place on large technology firms over the use of customer data, Amazon’s developments in the drone market may attract further such protests – particularly if members of the public are unable to tell the difference between various types of drone, and end up regarding them all with the same suspicion.

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