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New trials for delivering goods by drones BBC News

Image caption Drones delivering our shopping could become a reality across Britain, says Richard Westcott

The government's getting together with the retail giant Amazon to start testing flying drones that can deliver parcels to your door.

Amazon's paying for the programme, which will look at the best way to allow hundreds of robotic aircraft to buzz around Britain's skies safely.

The company claims it'll eventually mean small parcels will arrive at your house within 30 minutes of ordering them online.

Ministers say they want to pave the way for all businesses to start using the technology in future, but they will still have to convince the public that having automated drones flying around is both safe and won't invade people's privacy.

Three big problems

The trials will look at cracking three big problems:

Image caption In Germany, Deutsche Post has said that in the not-so-distant future, drone deliveries will "no longer be a niche business"

The government says the work will help it draw up new rules and regulations for the future, so that all companies can take advantage of drone technology, which it claims could eventually be worth billions.

Amazon says it is conducting the trials in Britain, because the regulations are more flexible than in other countries.

How will they work?

A number of systems are being tried, but the current favourite seems to be a machine that's part aeroplane and part helicopter.

It can fly at 50mph (80km/h) for 10 miles (16km) or more away from base, at a height of around 350ft (100m).

When it reaches the delivery address, it comes down vertically onto a special landing mat that the buyer will place on their property. So you could have parcels popped into your back garden for security.

Image caption There are still challenges to be overcome before drone deliveries become common

The company also claims it's working on ways to make the machines quieter and it says they won't have cameras on, just sensors.

That privacy question is something that came up a lot when I chatted to people on Maidstone High Street the other day.

Maybe the Amazon drones won't be filming, but people are worried other drones would.

Sheffield University professor Noel Sharkey - a robotics expert who co-founded the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and is currently a judge on the BBC's Robot Wars programme - voices concern about the growth of drones.

Image caption The UK needs a broader discussion about the future role of drones, says Noel Sharkey

"All information is stealable and all drones hackable", he tells me. "Anybody could steal one to deliver drugs or bombs.

"The Taliban have been hacking into military drones for years, stealing video feeds, using a bit of software they got from Sweden. Hezbollah did it for years with Israeli military drones.

"In 2012 the US Army warned people that it couldn't help making accidental recordings while flying over houses; so filming people in their back gardens, for example."

The future

Prof Sharkey also says he worries that the aviation authorities are interested in safety, but not privacy. He describes a sudden increase in flying drones as a "nightmare scenario".

"We need a broader societal discussion; not just the government and Amazon getting into a huddle for the sake of the economy."

Image caption Drones could potentially carry up to 90% of all of Amazon's deliveries

It's impossible to say how many parcels we're talking about as Amazon doesn't give figures. But it would be anything weighing less than 2.2kg (5lbs) and that is 80-90% of the things they sell.

Ministers say they want to create an environment where drones can be operated safely, beyond the line of sight, by 2020.

It may be Amazon today, but the question is: Who'll want to use drones in future?

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