Monday, December 2, 2013

The drone at your doorstep:
Amazon’s delivery window on the future



IT WON’T happen when Cyber Monday begins in earnest later today, with analysts expecting as much as $2 billion in online holiday sales before it’s all over. But sometime in the very near future — maybe by 2015 or so — the world’s biggest online retailer apparently intends to give instant gratification a whole new spin, courtesy of a civilian application of military technology.

On Sunday, Amazon, the online giant, announced its testing of a new package delivery system using drones for sending packages directly to your door. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, made this delivery on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

"I know this looks like science fiction, but it's not," he said about the testing of Amazon’s Prime Air program, in which drones called Octocopters would be used to deliver packages weighing up to 5 pounds to area addresses, with a 30-minute delivery window. Bezos said packages of that weight were “86 percent of the items that we deliver.”

ALL THIS, of course, has to wait for approval of commercial drones by the Federal Aviation Administration, which to this point has only approved drones for domestic use by law enforcement agencies. In 1987, the FAA published Advisory Circular 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards, a regulation that sets guidelines for unmanned aerial devices for civilian purposes.

As currently applied, AC 91-57 “specifically excludes [drone] use by persons or companies for business purposes.” Hobbyists can fly them at altitudes of no higher than 400 feet. The agency revisited and updated the policy in a 2007 media advisory, reiterating its ban for commercial use.

But the prospect of a fleet of buzzing drones bearing the Amazon smirk may become reaity sooner than you think. In a Q&A panel on an Amazon webpage about the Prime Air project, a closer timetable was suggested:

Q: When will I be able to choose Prime Air as a delivery option?

A: We hope the FAA's rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015. We will be ready at that time.

Q: How are you going to ensure public safety?

A: The FAA is actively working on rules and an approach for unmanned aerial vehicles that will prioritize public safety. Safety will be our top priority, and our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards.

◊ ◊ ◊

This application of drone technology has been working its way into the civilian world for a while now in fits and starts, notably in the world of journalism. In November 2011, at Independence Day protests in Warsaw, a drone built by RoboKopter Technologies Sp., swooped and zoomed over the protest site for several minutes, in an event widely reported in Polish media. In May of that year, a CNN producer used a drone made by a French manufacturer to record storm damage near Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The Amazon project is apparently the first bid by a commercial U.S. entity to exploit what, up to now, has been almost exclusively a militarist technology. But you have to wonder about the bugs to be worked out.

The Amazon demonstration video above shows a drone landing peacefully outside a front door, dropping its cargo and lifting back into the sky. Will it work as well for delivery to an enclosed front porch or a gated address? What’s the potential for mischief from knuckleheads with slingshots — or shotguns?


AND SINCE Amazon can’t reasonably expect this delivery option to be kept all to itself forever — it’s an open question whether a method of package delivery can be patented — are we ready for a civilian sky crowded with insect-loud drones from Fedex, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service (if it means to stay competitive)? And what about actual retailers who want to get in the game?

“One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today,” Amazon says on its web site. It’s a little chilling , and hard to get the head around right now ... much the same way it was once difficult to envision machines that would dispense cash a world away from your physical bank, or cards that allowed you to make financial transactions without any cash at all.

Watch this airspace. The buzzing you hear outside your window a handful of years from now may be the future arriving. In 30 minutes or less.

Image credits: Still from Prime Air video, Amazon Prime Air logo: © 2013 Amazon. Robokopter image: © 2013 RoboKopter Technologies Sp.

And so it begins: Published Tuesday at TheVerge.com:

UPS researching delivery drones that could compete with Amazon's Prime Air

The Verge has learned that the world's largest parcel service, UPS, has been experimenting with its own version of flying parcel carriers. Sources familiar with the company’s plans say it has been testing and evaluating different approaches to drone delivery. Asked for a comment, a company spokesman said that, "The commercial use of drones is an interesting technology and we’ll continue to evaluate it. UPS invests more in technology than any other company in the delivery business, and we’re always planning for the future."

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