Amazon is blowing smoke about drone delivery

Amazon Delivers Some Pie in the Sky –

I’m not impressed by Google’s “aerial delivery.” It’s easy to demonstrate a show system. But it will be very hard to create a safe system that can deliver loads of a few pounds, at a distance of even a few miles, much less the 10 that Jeff Bezos apparently claimed. Or to deliver to a specific person in an apartment building.

Here’s a quick response I wrote on Andrew McAfee’s page about this.

I’m skeptical. There are real safety issues here, as well as weight/payload/power issues. To deliver a 2kg package 30 km will take a vehicle gross weight > 6 kg (rough numbers). And helicopters, unlike fixed wing,  are “fail-dangerous.” Not to mention problems of delivering to a specific person in an urban environment. So I call “pie-in-the-sky” on this.

I see others are being skeptical because of regulatory problems. Yet other countries are way ahead of U.S. on regulation, and I don’t think regulation is the fundamental problem. The real problems include safety and payload:

  • Helicopters (actually, multirotors) have very limited endurance and therefore range. You can put a big battery on them, but then you need a bigger machine to carry the weight.
  • They have limited payload. Four ounces is no problem; but 5 pounds requires, right now, a machine with a total span of about three feet.
  • At least six motors and props will be needed (called a hexacopter). Otherwise, failure of a single engine would cause an immediate crash. Even with six or more rotors, a total power failure, or a guidance  failure, causes a crash. In a crash, the operator has  zero control on where the machine ends up. This is unlike an aircraft.
  • A machine this size that crashes is big enough to kill someone underneath. Especially if some of the motors are still operating. Even professionals are very careful about what they fly over. You can see videos on Youtube of idiots flying over crowded beaches, but a few people have been badly hurt this way, and the number will grow.
  • Navigation using programmed routes is straightforward in clear areas, by using GPS-based-autopilots. But with obstacles (trees, buildings) a lot of development work remains. This problem, unlike the others, will be solved eventually by Moore’s Law.
  • If you use an aircraft (wings) instead of a copter, many of the safety issues get much better. But on the other hand, you need a much larger area to land in. You can’t land in someone’s back yard.

Most of these problems are due to laws of physics, not the capability of current electronics. In short, delivering packages is an active area of R&D, but it will be feasible only in  situations where it is almost useless:

  • When you will be flying in unpopulated areas
  • When you can afford to crash, and lose, a few percent of your vehicles.
  • When the load is small, and the range is short.

There may be  some cases that fit this description, but very few. For the next 5+ years, using drones for that don’t have to land remotely – mainly for remote sensing – is going to be the only practical application. Unless you have a military budget, of course.



This is the “entry page” for my paper on the slow adoption of better flying methods in WW 2. Please link to this page, rather than to the actual PDF, which I will be updating.  Here is the paper itself. (July 19 version)

In the late 1930s, US military aviators in the American Army and Navy began using aviation checklists. Checklist became part of a new paradigm for how to fly, which I call Standard Procedure Flying, colloquially known as “flying by the book.” It consisted of elaborate standardized procedures for many activities, checklists to ensure they key steps had been done, and quantitative tables and formulas that specified the best settings, under different conditions, for speed, engine RPM, gasoline/air mixture, engine cooling, and many other parameters. This new paradigm had a major influence on reducing aviation accidents and increasing military effectiveness during World War II, particularly because of the rapidly increasing complexity of military aircraft, and the huge number of new pilots. Continue reading

Changing flying from a craft to a science: what went right, and what went wrong, in World War II

I have just finished  a working paper called  NOT FLYING BY THE BOOK: SLOW ADOPTION OF CHECKLISTS AND PROCEDURES IN WW2 AVIATION. It tells how, in 1937 shortly before World War 2,  the American air forces invented a much better way to train new pilots, and to fly complex aircraft and missions. What they invented is now used all over the world, by all licensed pilots and military aviators. But during the war, even American pilots resisted switching to the new way of flying. The only full-speed adopters were the strategic bombing forces attacking Germany and Japan. The US Navy, despite being one of the 1937 inventors, did not fully make the switch until after 1960!

Precise flying was a matter of life or death.

Precise flying was a matter of life or death.

POMS talk: Aviation 1940 = Medicine 2005

B-17 Throttles

B-17 Throttles (Photo credit: rkbentley)

On Sunday I gave a capstone talk at the Production & Operations Society meeting in Denver.  I oriented my talk toward a comparison of health care now, with aviation’s transition to Standard Procedure Flying in the 1940s and 50s. BOHN POMS Standard procedure flying 2013e

As in medicine now, experienced expert flyers who did not use standard procedures were still better than newly trained pilots who did. And there was resistance to the changes. But aviation had a couple of advantages in making the transition: New pilots who did not learn SPF died quickly, usually in accidents. And the old experts got rotated out of combat positions (United States Army Air Force), or eventually got shot down no matter how good they were. (Germany)

Continue reading

Announcing new page for book excerpts: Daredevils to System Operators

I  have started a page devoted to excerpts from my book on art and science in flying. The first excerpt is about the invention of aviation checklists and related concepts, in the late 1930s. It turns out that the much-repeated story about a crash of a B-17 prototype is probably only partly true. The US Navy came out with a checklist at almost the same time.

Here is the page where I will post this and future excerpts.

How did flying go from an art to a science?

Why do doctors and lawyers practice their professions as an art, while pilots treat flying as a science? Is the comparison even appropriate? For several years I have been working on a book showing how flying changed from a dangerous art, to a very safe science. On this blog I will be posting excerpts from the book as it progresses. My goal is to entertain, and to get comments, corrections, and criticisms.

100 years ago, pilots (men and women) learned to fly by doing it. If they survived the learning process, they got good. Now, computers do most of the flying. Human pilots manage the computers, and communicate with other aircraft and with the ground, but they do very little direct hands-on flying. How did this situation come about? Is it an appropriate model for other industries, or are there unique circumstances for aviation that make it different?
My first excerpt looks at the origins of the Aviation Checklist, which is advocated by famous surgeon Atul Gawande and others. This style of flying was a re-invention of what engineer Frederick Taylor had done for manufacturing about 40 years earlier. In both, the idea was that some ways of flying/manufacturing were best. The best methods could be found, and taught to everyone.

Airplane fires are still “craft” stage

I just presented some of my research on how flying went from Art to Science, at the INFORMS conference. (Very short paper  at Long working paper is coming soon.)  My colleague Erica Fuchs related a recent experience that demonstrates how certain activities in flying are still at what I call the “Rules + Instruments” stage, which got started in the 1930s.

During a flight to Chicago, she noticed a “bad smell.” One of the other passengers was an off-duty airline pilot who also noticed it, and went rocketing up to the cockpit to tell the pilots.  The result: they landed immediately, at an unused airport near their flight path.  A mechanic flew in and found that one of the light ballasts had overheated, producing the smell. He replaced it, and they proceeded.

Ten years ago, this would  have been treated much less urgently. “Bad electrical smell” is not very specific. But a few recent tragedies have focused attention on the problem of fuselage fires. The sobering insights were that 1) we still don’t have good instruments for detecting or locating fires in some parts of an aircraft  – the human nose is still the best we have,  2) most burning smells are not serious problems, but when there really is a fire, sometimes the only effective countermeasure is to land; 3) every minute counts.

Pilots used to follow an elaborate checklist, attempting to diagnose and solve the problem in flight, but in a couple of cases that gave the fire time enough to take hold and destroy the aircraft. So on her flight, the procedure apparently was “when you can’t identify the source, land as fast as possible.” Does anyone know what the “official” checklists look like now, for this situation?