Say what you will about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, he does have an ability to think outside the proverbial box: his company is prepping to deliver packages to customers via airborne drone.
If the FAA approves Amazon’s airborne delivery (something the latter anticipates won’t take place until 2015 at the earliest), the company will use the drones to place items on residential doorsteps within 30 minutes. As detailed in a video posted on Amazon’s Website, workers at Amazon Fulfillment Centers (a corporate synonym for “warehouses”) will load each new item into a hard case, which the drone will lock to its undercarriage before flying off; once it lands at the target address, it will leave the case with the item inside. Amazon’s calling the service “Amazon Prime Air,” which suggests it’ll be a perk for Amazon Prime members willing to pay a premium.
“The FAA is actively working on rules and an approach for unmanned aerial vehicles that will prioritize public safety,” read an accompanying note on Amazon’s Website. “Safety will be our top priority, and our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards.”
Despite those assurances, several questions remain. For starters, it’s extremely likely that the FAA will require a human pilot or supervisor for each drone flight. If that’s the case, Amazon will need to hire hundreds of new employees to guide the aircraft, in addition to building new systems capable of monitoring variables such as local weather and air traffic—for liability’s sake alone, it’s virtually certain the drones won’t fly unless conditions are ideal.
Amazon is right about the FAA actively looking into domestic drones: over the summer, the agency approved a pair of small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for flight; an energy company planned to launch one of those two drones, the Insitu Scan Eagle X200, from a commercial ship off the Alaska coast to survey ice floes and whale migrations in oil-exploration zones.
Private companies are also investing heavily in drone research. Airware, a company that builds autopilot computers for drones, recently accepted $10.7 million in capital from Google Ventures (among other investors). And in September, Boeing announced that it had retrofitted an F-16 into a pilotless drone capable of performing complex maneuvers such as barrel rolls.
Meanwhile, civil-rights groups and regulators have pushed back against the rise of domestic drones, particularly when it comes to their use by law enforcement and government. “Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act,” the ACLU posted on its Website earlier this year. “Images [from drone cameras] should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.” If Amazon drones feature cameras—and that’s pretty likely, given their pilots’ presumed need to view the environment—it could embroil the company in a privacy-and-security debate at some point.
Domestic drones also come with physical dangers, as well. In October, a small helicopter drone tumbled out of the sky over midtown Manhattan, crashing to the sidewalk near Grand Central Station; on the way down it almost hit a businessman, who plucked out the video card from the wreckage and handed it over to a local television-news station. In the video, the drone (a Phantom Quadcopter) buzzes some skyscapers before the pilot—clearly inexperienced—crashes it against the side of a building. Drone enthusiasts and engineers blamed the Quadcopter’s poor performance on the pilot’s possible reliance on GPS mode in an area with tall buildings, which block GPS signals, potentially leading vehicles disastrously off-target.
If Amazon wants to bring its delivery drones to life, it’ll need to convince the FAA that the physical risks are minimal, and that citizens won’t mind dozens of small vehicles zipping overhead. And for those who enjoy stealing Amazon packages off neighbors’ stoops—you know who you are—swiping that book or DVD could get a whole lot easier: just follow the buzzing aircraft.