Drone delivery service: Amazon Prime Air plans to ship packages with unmanned aerial vehicles

This is the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project that Amazon is working on in its research and development labs. (Credit: Amazon/AP)

This is the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project that Amazon is working on in its research and development labs. (Credit: Amazon/AP)

On December 1, Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes went behind the scenes at Amazon with Jeff Bezos to show just how all of the packing and shipping – the inside of Amazon’s organization – works. But the big reveal at the end of the segment was this: Amazon is using drone technology to develop “octocopters” for a new delivery service they call Amazon Prime Air. Using autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles, which will need only GPS coordinates to deliver packages of less than five pounds, Amazon hopes to launch a drone delivery service – if they can get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate civilian drones.

Drones for civilians?

Most of the news about drones has been related to tracking terrorists, or using the unmanned vehicles – typically piloted by someone in front of a computer – as weapons. But the federal government isn’t the only group using drones, and the civilian use of drones, even by police forces, has raised concerns about privacy. In the March 13, 2013 article “Drones over America: Public safety benefit or ‘creepy’ privacy threat?” Anna Mulrine of the Christian Science Monitor noted the difference in cost between an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and, say, a helicopter that would provide the same function to police agencies. The price tags: $50,000 for the UAV, and $25 million for the helicopter. So why wouldn’t police forces want to invest in the unmanned option?

In part, because the FAA has to approve them, and the FAA has been struggling to keep up with ways to deal with the new technology. The industry is growing, and there are around 50 companies developing ways to use drone technology – including Amazon. “It’s an industry expected to reach some $6 billion in US sales by 2016,” Mulrine noted. Critics of the technology fear that one day, drones will be used to suppress free speech; but companies looking for ways to improve delivery options view UAVs as a green (all electric, no gas) technology that will one day be as common as delivery trucks.

The projected industry growth has led Congress to set a schedule by which the FAA must have a plan to deal with commercial UAVs – but the FAA is already behind schedule. Supposedly, the new rules should be in place by September 2015, perhaps in time for Amazon Prime Air to launch for CyberMonday of the same year…

What does the FAA allow? 

Aside from Predator drones and the UAVs used by U. S. Border Patrol –which have to go through an approval process with the FAA – there are several hundred permits released for UAVs for university research, public use, and law enforcement. The agency is choosing six sites for drone testing, helping the FAA to determine how much training drone pilots should have, which doesn’t take into account Bezos’s idea of fully autonomous machines. The FAA also just released a “road map” that projects their progress in the next five years.

“But although the FAA is making slow progress toward figuring out how to certify UAVs and their operators … by 2015 it’s not required to do much more than tell companies how to responsibly fly a commercial UAV and help them start testing,” Adi Robertson explained on the Verge in “Here are the three things Amazon needs to get its delivery drones off the ground,” posted December 2, 2013. Robertson continued, “Amazon might well be ready at that point, but ‘ready’ won’t mean one-click drone shopping.”

Will the technology work? 

There are certainly hurdles for the UAVs – for example, the battery time and range – but experts believe the technology is workable. David Talbot, writing for MIT’s Technology Review, described some cases where it had actually been used in “Separating hype from reality on Amazon’s drones,” posted December 2, 2013. “Last year, a startup called Matternet in Palo Alto, California, tested drones as a way to deliver supplies to refugee camps in Haiti and found it cost only 20 to 70 cents to deliver a two-kilogram package 10 kilometers—at least a fivefold savings compared to standard truck delivery,” Talbot said.

But the expectation of delivering primarily in populated places – Bezos has said the UAVs could work in a 10 mile radius from an Amazon fulfillment center, and they would primarily serve an urban audience – has a number of hurdles. Not only are the FAA regulations strictest in densely populated areas, due to the potential for accidents and potential injuries to citizens, but urban areas also have the largest number of obstacles for UAVs to avoid.

So will we see Amazon drones by the holiday shopping season of 2015? It’s uncertain, but the FAA estimates that by 2020, Americans could be seeing 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles filling the skies.

What do you think about delivery drones? Tell us in the comments.

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