NEW YORK – Amazon is working on a way to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less – by self-guided drones.
Amazon.com Inc. says it’s working on the Prime Air unmanned aircraft project in its research and development labs. But the company admits it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations.
The project was first reported by CBS’ 60 Minutes on Sunday night, hours before millions of shoppers turned to their computers to hunt Cyber Monday bargains.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in the primetime interview that while his 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 5 pounds, which covers about 86 percent 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.
Bezos told 60 Minutes the project could become a working service in four or five years.
Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos’ proposed flying machines won’t need humans sitting in a distant trailer to control them. Amazon’s drones would receive a set of GPS coordinates and automatically fly to them, presumably avoiding buildings, power lines and other obstacles along the way.
Delivery drones raise a host of concerns, from air traffic safety to homeland security and privacy. There are technological and legal obstacles, too – 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 a crash does occur, who is liable?
Then there are the security issues. Delivering packages by drone might be impossible in a city like Washington, D.C., which has many no-fly zones.
But technology entrepreneur and futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that 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 Kurzweil, whose 2005 book The Singularity is Near argues that the age of smarter-than-human intelligence will arrive in the near future.
Drones will deliver packages and provide improved mapmaking and monitoring of traffic, but will introduce similar privacy concerns, he said. Kurzweil points out, however, that security cameras are already in most public spaces, not to mention the ubiquitous camera phone.
It’s fascinating as an idea and probably very hard to execute, said Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies who sees Bezos as an unconventional thinker. If he could really deliver something you order within 30 minutes, he would rewrite the rules of online retail.
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 purposes.
The FAA is slowly moving forward with guidelines on commercial drone use. Last year, Congress directed the agency to grant drones access to U.S. skies by September 2015.
The FAA plans to propose rules next year that could eventually allow limited use of drones weighing up to 55 pounds. But those rules are expected to include major restrictions on where drones can fly.