Amazon, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Amazon.com is working on a way to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less — via self-guided drone.
Consider it the modern version of a pizza delivery boy, minus the boy.
Amazon.com said it's working on the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project in its research and development labs. But the company says 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" Sunday night, hours before millions of shoppers turned to their computers for Cyber Monday sales.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a primetime interview that while the 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 five 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.
While it's tough to say exactly how long it will take the project to get off the ground, Bezos told "60 Minutes" that he thinks it could happen in four or five years.
"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 Ray Kurzweil, a technology entrepreneur and futurist. Kurzweil's 2005 book "The Singularity is Near" argues that the age of smarter-than-human intelligence will arrive in the not-so-distant future.
"Drones will deliver packages and provide improved mapmaking and monitoring of traffic, but will introduce similar privacy concerns," he said. Kurzweil noted, however, that security cameras are already in most public spaces, not to mention the ubiquitous camera phone.
Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos' proposed flying machines wouldn'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.
Amazon spent almost $2.9 billion in shipping last year, accounting for 4.7 percent of its net sales.
Drone delivery faces several legal and technology obstacles 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 an accident does occur, who is legally 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.
"The technology has moved forward faster than the law has kept pace," said Brendan Schulman, special counsel at the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.
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 uses. Schulman is currently challenging that regulation before a federal administrative law judge on behalf of a client who was using a radio-controlled aircraft to shoot video for an advertising agency. Autonomous flights like Amazon is proposing, without somebody at the controls, are also prohibited.
The FAA is slowly moving forward with guidelines to allow expanded use of drones but has had numerous delays. Many of the commercial advances in drone use have come out of Europe, Australia, and Japan.
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