Why Amazon's drones may not fly

NOT SO SOON: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a plan to deliver goods to customers using drones like this flying octocopter, but the US isn't likely to establish rules for civilian unmanned aircraft systems until 2015.


    Dec 04, 2013

    Why Amazon's drones may not fly


    AMAZON.COM chief executive Jeff Bezos made a splash on Sunday with a radical plan to deliver goods to millions of Amazon customers' doors by using a fleet of unmanned drones, but the bold vision is not likely to become a reality soon.

    By Mr Bezos' own admission, the technology that would enable electric-powered "octocopters" to fly to pre-programmed addresses unaided by humans is still early in development.

    The United States is also not likely to establish rules for civilian unmanned aircraft systems until 2015 at the earliest.

    On top of that, the idea faces privacy concerns and was derided by some as merely a publicity stunt.

    "I know this looks like science fiction. It's not," Mr Bezos told talk-show host Charlie Rose on CBS News' 60 Minutes on Sunday night, while showing a video of a buzzing, toy-sized chopper delicately dropping a small package on a customer's patio.

    Dubbed "Prime Air" by Amazon, the vehicles could be used to deliver packages of up to 2.3kg in less than 30 minutes in a 16km radius of Amazon's operation centres, known as fulfilment centres, said Mr Bezos.

    The technology still needs years of work, he admitted.

    He said: "Could it be four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it's going to be a lot of fun."

    The idea of deliveries by unmanned vehicles is not completely new.

    Technology-news site The Verge reported last month that Australian textbook-rental firm Zookal plans to use drones to deliver books in Australia next year.

    But Zookal and Amazon are up against a raft of real-world challenges.

    The Britain-based Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) warned immediately that the technology needs refinement.

    IET's Mr Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, who is pushing for wider use of unmanned aircraft worldwide, said: "There are many challenges to overcome.

    "At the top of the list is the need to mature the technologies and demonstrate to the regulators that unmanned aircraft can operate safely in our airspace."

    The US authorities have recognised the commercial applications of drones, but appear to be in no hurry to set the rules.

    The Federal Aviation Administration allows the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by public entities only on a case-by-case basis.

    It plans to begin tests on commercial UAS by the end of this year and to propose a rule for small craft next year, which means no firm regulations will be set before 2015.

    Broader reaction to Mr Bezos' plan was mixed.

    Mr Mark Udall, a Democrat Colorado senator who is pushing legislation that would outlaw domestic surveillance by UAS, raised concerns about privacy.

    He said in a statement: "Coloradans will accept this technology only if they are certain their privacy is protected and that Americans won't be victims of surveillance or privacy abuse by private unmanned aerial system operators."

    Mr Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace-industry expert and analyst at Teal Group, was more blunt.

    He said: "It's such an appallingly dumb idea that I presume they're talking about it as a form of clever satire."