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Amazon has a lot to do before Prime Air’s drones start flying

FAA regulation might keep Amazon’s air delivery service on the ground for the next decade.


Amazon’s Jeff Bezos unveiled his plans to use a fleet UAVs to deliver certain items ordered from his online store in as “little as 30 minutes” during an interview Sunday night with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes.

According to a promotional video shown during the broadcast the items are attached to the drone by a worker in the warehouse, and the drone flies away to its destination guided by GPS. It lands, detaches the package from itself, then flies back to the warehouse.

Bezos said the drones are able to take a package that weighs up to five pounds to an address that’s within 10 miles of an Amazon facility.

But for Bezos, the problem is regulatory and not technological.

“The hardest challenge in making this happen is demonstrating to the standards of the Federal Aviation Administration that this is a safe thing to do. This is years of additional work at this point,” he said during the interview.

Bezos said that Amazon’s drones will be ready to launch in 2015, provided that the FAA’s rules are in place at the time. In November, the FAA released a roadmap regarding bringing unmanned aerial systems to the skies above the United States. For example, the FAA requires a slight restructuring of air traffic control systems in order for drones to co-exist with other civilian air traffic.

But the problem Bezos faces is that the regulations in production are for unmanned aerial systems, not autonomous ones. As far as the public and press has been led on to believe, Bezos is planning for Amazon’s UAVs to be autonomous — without human control. Technologically this is practical if the vehicles were equipped with radar for collision detection, and customers had some sort of beacon on their property to tell the drone where to land. However, regulations for truly autonomous drones is a long way off as the FAA understandably would have a long list of concerns.


Next, these drones are currently limited by range; Bezos said say can currently only do a 10 mile round trip. This means that Amazon will need to build urban fulfillment centers, thus would further limit the products available via Amazon PrimeAir. It’s also currently unknown what the costs would be to have a package delivered this way.

This project sounds promising, and has certainly been a big PR win for Amazon. But regular deliveries via drones won’t be happening anytime in the near future. There’s just too much work for regulators to do before automated aircraft take to the skies.

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