Jeffrey P. Bezos has never been known for thinking small. And in an interview aired Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes," he outlined his latest plan for revolutionizing the retail industry: using drones to deliver packages in as little as 30 minutes. Declaring himself an "optimist," the Amazon.com founder and chief executive predicted the technology could be brought to market in as little as five years.
This is more than a theoretical idea. Bezos showed CBS's Charlie Rose a working prototype of an eight-rotor helicopter drone called an "octocopter." Emblazoned with "Amazon Prime Air," the flying robot has a claw at the bottom that allows it to scoop up packages at Amazon fulfillment centers and carry them to customers' front lawns:
Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who has written extensively about drones, said that this is precisely the kind of application Congress had in mind in 2012 when it ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to open the sky to commercial drones. There are strict limits on the use of drones for commercial purposes, but that is scheduled to change soon.
"By 2015, the FAA has to come up with a set of rules that integrates just the kind of thing that Amazon is talking about" into the national airspace, Calo said.
Amazon will have to convince federal regulators that the technology is safe and that it wouldn't lead to excessive congestion. "If what Amazon proposes doesn't feel safe, the FAA could get worried about the prospect of these things falling out of the sky," Calo said. In his "60 Minutes" interview, Bezos said that the prototype octocopter has redundant motors so it can stay in the air even if one fails.
Calo said the FAA may be skittish about allowing fully automated drones in the sky. At least initially, the agency might require that a human guide the drones remotely during deliveries. That might initially drive up the cost of the service, limiting its use to customers willing to pay a premium.
Technological issues also could limit the technology's value in the next few years. According to Calo, the current generation of autonomous flying machines can carry only a few pounds and stay in the air for about 15 minutes. That means that it probably wouldn't be possible to serve an entire metropolitan area from a single fulfillment center.
But Amazon may be able to overcome both obstacles in the long run. That means that someday, unmanned flights that could allow 30-minute deliveries to become as common and affordable as two-day delivery are today.
Disclosure: Bezos owns The Washington Post.