Supply chain · 27 July 2016

Amazon Prime Air drones cleared to fly in Britain

Amazon Prime Air aims to deliver products to customers via drone within 30 minutes of ordering

The British government has granted Amazon permission to begin flying drones and start testing deliveries, in advance of the UK launch of its planned Amazon Prime Air service.

In a move that could further shake things up for Britain’s smaller local retailers, the US online retail giant has been cleared to fly drones further than the line of sight of an operator in UK airspace by the government and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Amazon will be able to test sensors to see if drones crash into buildings or objects, as well as test how many drones one operator can fly without losing control.

The development sees the online retailer take a step closer to rolling out Amazon Prime Air across the UK. The new service will aim to deliver products to customers via drone within 30 minutes of ordering, requiring Amazon to stock products in warehouses near enough to homes and offices to reach customers in under half an hour.

While in reality only a limited set of products may be available for immediate delivery at any one time, with other items available via an overnight express service, Amazon Prime Air is expected to deter some customers from shopping with local retailers.

It is not the first of Amazon’s new services to be viewed by some as a threat to small suppliers and local retailers.

Serious concerns have been raised about Amazon Prime Now – the company’s superfast delivery service – about how it might impact local economies by drawing custom away from independent retailers.

Free for Amazon Prime members, “Now” offers same-day delivery within two hours. But, when introduced in Paris in June this year, mayor of the French capital Anne Hidalgo claimed that the service would “seriously destabilise the balance of Parisian businesses”.

Small business owners have complained about the barriers to entry Prime Now builds, including free and speedy delivery.

In London, however, small independent food retailers have welcomed AmazonFresh – Amazon’s new food delivery service – which sees the firm partner with 90 local food distributers, many of them small delivery companies, to deliver groceries to customers in the city.

“Working with Amazon means our brownies can get to hungry chocoholics in a matter of hours, signaling the end of overbaked, homemade, cakey brownies at dinner parties,” said London-based Bad Brownie co-founder Paz Sarmah.

Amazon has until now been hampered by governments and regulators that have placed limits on how the company can operate drones, including the requisite that a drone must remain within the line of sight of an operator.  It is hoped testing will help identify the rules and regulations needed to move the drone industry forward.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the CAA said: “These tests by Amazon will help inform our policy and future approach as they explore the potential for safe use of drones.”

Read more about how West London retailers are pressuring government to abandon the planned business rate revaluation.

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Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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