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Not So Fast: Amazon’s Drone Program Faces Hurdles

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos may have a solution for even the most chronic Christmas shopping procrastinators.

The CEO of the e-commerce giant recently unveiled the future of Amazon’s delivery service, Amazon Prime Air. The company’s new service would involve a fleet of unmanned drones that would be able to deliver packages under a certain size to a customer in as little as 30 minutes after the order is placed. Although this service is several years out, Amazon has already included photos and a video on their site of what Prime Air will be.
The full details of the service have yet to be explained, but CEO Jeff Bezos gave a little insight into his vision when he introduced the project on 60 Minutes earlier this month. Amazon’s initial delivery drones will be octocopters that can carry packages up to five pounds, which account for about 86% of all Amazon deliveries. Bezos also claims that the aircrafts will have a 10-mile radius, which would seem to make only people located near one of Amazon’s 96 fulfillment centers eligible for the service.
While Amazon’s Jeff Bezos made the biggest splash in announcing his plans for unmanned aerial deliveries, this idea is not a new one. Domino’s Pizza, FedEx, and UPS are among the other companies that have been toying with the idea of commercial drones for delivery. In fact, Domino’s posted a video earlier this year of their “DomiCopter” delivering a pizza in the UK. Yet Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos certainly appears to be more committed than anyone to be at the forefront of this innovation in delivery service. And with Amazon shipping millions of packages each day, he hopes to make delivery drones more commonplace than delivery trucks.
But don’t expect to be seeing branded drones clouding the skies just yet. Amazon will have several obstacles to overcome before launching this new service. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently working on regulations for unmanned aerial vehicles that would allow for Amazon’s delivery drones. Optimistically, Amazon and other companies aspiring to use drones for commercial use hope that FAA rules will be put into place to allow for such unmanned aircrafts by 2015.

Yet there is the possibility that this process will take much longer. We will likely see Amazon delivery drones in service in other countries before they are allowed in the US. Though perhaps Amazon’s fervent push for FAA regulations allowing their drones could expedite the complicated process. Amazon and others hoping to utilize commercial drones face other possible problems other than the FAA passing regulations. Amazon’s video displaying the future of Amazon Prime Air shows the octocopter traveling over a wide-open field with no people or electrical wires in the way.

In reality, these delivery drones will have to account for many irregularities in the airspace as well as the possibility of some unforeseen conditions. It is not clear how these aircrafts will overcome turbulent weather, especially on limited battery life. There is also the worry about people shooting down these drones to intercept packages or simply just for sport. While the idea of thirty-minute delivery from Amazon is certainly an attractive proposition, there are various issues that will need to be hammered out before we can expect drones to fulfill our Amazon orders.

Photo Credit: Hoary, via Wikimedia Commons

About Jeff Goodman

A Carmel, CA native, Jeff is NBR's Finance Editor. He likes squash (the vegetable not the sport) and Sporcle, a website devoted "to mentally stimulating diversions."

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