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The Sky Is Falling - No, Wait, It's Just a Package From Amazon

The Sky Is Falling - No, Wait, It's Just a Package From Amazon

UPS and FedEx, beware -- you may follow the U.S. Postal Service on the path to irrelevance as unmanned drones take over your delivery operations. Imagine the skies buzzing with drones toting Amazon parcels hither and yon. There are a few hurdles to clear first, though -- like making sure packages can't be stolen or misdirected or dropped on some poor chump's head.

By Kris Holt
12/02/13 11:32 AM PT

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is looking to the skies for his company's latest splashy venture, with a plan to start making deliveries by drones within the next five years.

The initiative, Amazon Prime Air, will allow the company to make deliveries via the unmanned devices within a half-hour of ordering in some cases. Bezos revealed the plan during a 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose.

Most Items Deliverable

The drones can carry items weighing up to five pounds, Bezos claimed. Since approximately 86 percent of items in Amazon's inventory fall into that category, the company will be able to deliver many purchases rapidly should the plan take off.

The drones have a range of 10 miles from Amazon's fulfillment centers, which will cover a large percentage of urban populations, Bezos claimed.

The drones run on electric motors, making them more environmentally friendly than trucks, he added.

However, Bezos was quick to point out that this project is still nestled in Amazon's research and development department.

Potential Savings

"It's an interesting concept, and if it can overcome all the hurdles it could save on gas and staff," Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told TechNewsWorld. "However, you would have to have more local distribution centers -- note that the distance from each to the end customer would be limited -- and you would have to deal with the maintenance, repair, and potential loss of the drones. So, any savings may just be a wash."

The drone project, which will deliver items to customers of the premium Amazon Prime service, is pending approval by the United States Federal Aviation Authority. The agency is preparing to integrate drones into the country's airspace system, a process which is scheduled for completion by 2015 per the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law earlier this year. That means the earliest that Amazon would be allowed to start its program would be in 2015.

"We have computer systems that are fully capable of flying the devices, but the FAA doesn't want these things flying where aircraft could hit them," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"The battery life needed for a round trip is very limited," he added. "This will likely be a device that will require supercapacitors to become viable for weight, short charge times and service life."

Reliability Questions

There are potential reliability issues as well, as Amazon doesn't want drones to fall out of the sky and injure pedestrians.

"Keeping in mind that IT market predictions beyond 18 to 24 months are liberally sprinkled with fairy dust, the obstacles Amazon faces are pretty severe," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

"First and foremost, the device and infrastructure technologies required to support such an effort either don't exist or are in very early development. Second, where and how deliveries would be made is problematic -- it's not like many homes or businesses have or would be willing to dedicate space for drone landings," he pointed out.

"Third, we haven't yet come to terms with the concept of driverless cars sharing the road with regular vehicles, let alone letting pilotless aircraft into civilian airspace," King continued. "Finally, the use of drone aircraft by police and intelligence agencies is politically controversial, which could poison commercial efforts by Amazon and others."

Hijacked Devices

There are several other potential hiccups in Amazon's grand drone plan. Hackers could redirect a drone by spoofing its GPS signals, research has shown. Thieves could find a number of ways of taking down a drone and stealing its cargo.

"Some locations may not like the concept -- then the drones may be little more than target practice," Tirias' McGregor noted.

"It could make rapid point-to-point delivery very inexpensive and incredibly fast -- no traffic concerns, etc.," Enderle pointed out -- but "on the con side, if someone hacked into the network it could result in air catastrophes around airports or injuries. The devices could be made to attack people -- for instance, by dropping their packages on them from height or flying into them. Assuring safety will be a significant burden."

Droning On Elsewhere

Amazon is not the first retail company to float the idea of deliveries by drone. Education firm Zookal plans textbook deliveries using the devices.

If the concept is approved by Australian regulators, students will be able to order textbooks and have them delivered within minutes in Sydney. They'll be able to track drones using the Web. The drones will not touch the ground; rather, the students will signal the drones to lower the package using an app. If all goes well, Zookal plans to bring the drones to the U.S.

Drone delivery is just the latest in a long line of tactics Amazon has come up with to get its products in the hands of consumers as soon as possible after ordering. It recently started offering Sunday deliveries to Amazon Prime customers in several major U.S. cities.

Is It a Gimmick?

It remains to be seen whether Amazon Prime Air takes off or falters, but the timing of the announcement -- the day before major online sales event Cyber Monday -- could point to the project being essentially a gimmick.

"The cons are many, and outside of the announcement allowing Amazon to dominate the news cycle the day before Cyber Monday 2013, I can't think of any pros. To me, drone aircraft package delivery is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem," suggested Pund-IT's King.

"I don't think the concept is mature enough to really consider it a serious threat to the competition over the next five years," McGregor said. "In 10 years, it may be a viable option, but only for select locations and applications. You are unlikely to send a drone with an expensive item, such as jewelry, and there are weight limitations. So, the best way to think about this is a complementary delivery method in limited locations and for limited applications."


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