Amazon.com considering unmanned aircraft to deliver purchases

The Associated Press
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NEW YORK — Amazon.com is working on a way to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less — via self-guided drone.

The so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft that Amazon is working on in its research and development labs.

Consider it the modern version of a pizza delivery boy, minus the boy.

Amazon.com said it’s working on the so-called Prime Air unmann­ed aircraft project in its research and development labs. But the company says it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create the necessary rules and regulations.

The project was first reported by CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday night, hours before millions of shoppers turned to their computers for Cyber Monday sales.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a prime time interview that while the octocopters look like something out of science fiction, there’s no reason they can’t be used as delivery vehicles.

Bezos said the drones can carry packages that weigh up to five pounds, which covers about 86 per cent of the items Amazon delivers. The drones the company is testing have a range of about 10 miles, which Bezos noted could cover a significant portion of the population in urban areas.

While it’s tough to say exactly how long it will take the project to get off the ground, Bezos told “60 Minutes” that he thinks it could happen in four or five years.

Double use

“Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Fire kept us warm and cooked our food, but also was used to burn down our villages,” said Ray Kurzweil, a technology entrepreneur and futurist. Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity is Near” argues that the age of smarter-than-human intelligence will arrive in the not-too-distant future.

“Drones will deliver packages and provide improved mapmaking and monitoring of traffic, but will introduce similar privacy concerns,” he said.

Kurzweil noted, however, that security cameras are already in most public spaces, not to mention the ubiquitous camera phone.

Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos’ proposed flying machines wouldn’t need humans sitting in a distant trailer to control them.

Amazon’s drones would receive a set of GPS co-ordinates and automatically fly to them, presumably avoiding buildings, power lines and other obstacles along the way.

Amazon spent almost $2.9 billion in shipping last year, accounting for 4.7 per cent of its net sales.

Drone delivery faces several legal and technological obstacles similar to Google’s experimental driverless car.

How do you design a machine that safely navigates the roads or skies without hitting anything? And, if an accident does occur, who is legally liable?

Security concerns

Then there are the security issues. Delivering packages by drone might be impossible in a city such as Washington D.C. which has many no-fly zones.

“The technology has moved forward faster than the law has kept pace,” said Brendan Schulman, special counsel at the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.

There is no prohibition on flying drones for recreational use, but since 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration has said they can’t be used for commercial uses.

Schulman is challenging that regulation before a federal administrative law judge on behalf of a client who was using a radio-controlled aircraft to shoot video for an advertising agency. Autonomous flights like Amazon is proposing, without somebody at the controls, are also prohibited.

The FAA is slowly developing guidelines to allow expanded use of drones, but has had numerous delays. Many of the commercial advances in drone use have come out of Europe, Australia and Japan.

“The delay has really been to the disadvantage of companies here,” Schulman said. “Generally, the government wants to promote the advancement of science and technology. In this case, the government has done exactly the opposite and thwarted the ability of small, startup companies to develop commercial applications for this revolutionary technology.”

Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako said the company has been in contact with the FAA “as they are actively working on necessary regulation.”

Bezos founded Amazon.com in 1994 after quitting his job at a Wall Street hedge fund. With Bezos’ parents and a few friends as investors, Amazon began operating out of the Bezos’ Seattle garage as an online bookseller on July 16, 1995. In the nearly two decades since, Amazon has grown to become the world’s largest online retailer, selling everything from shoes to groceries to diapers and power tools.

Amazon’s business plan has been to spend heavily on expanding its business, improving order fulfilment and expanding into new areas. Those investments have come at the expense of consistent profitability, but investors have been largely forgiving, focusing on the company’s long-term promise and double-digit revenue growth. Though it may be years before it’s reality, drone-powered delivery fits with the company’s plan to make delivery as convenient — and fast — as possible.

Organizations: Amazon.com, Federal Aviation Administration, Prime Air CBS Google

Geographic location: Washington D.C., Europe, Australia Japan Seattle

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