Amazon drones won’t replace the mailman or FedEx woman any time soon

Really, what could go wrong?
Really, what could go wrong?
Image: Amazon
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Amazon’s new “delivery system,” Amazon Prime Air, promises to get packages to customers “in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles,” and could be in commercial use soon as 2015, the company said Dec. 1.

Skeptics have quickly gathered, questioning everything from the project’s safety to its technological feasibility, and even Amazon acknowledges that sending hundreds of unmanned delivery vehicles into the air does seem a bit fantastic. (Amazon’s first query in the FAQ on the topic is “Is this science fiction or is this real?”)

Amazon, defending the viability of drone delivery, said “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.” We’ve already looked at why drone delivery of pizza, another fun-but-unlikely idea, won’t be happening soon. Amazon Prime Air will limit packages to 5 pounds or less, which Amazon says is about 84% of its deliveries, so weight won’t be a problem as it would with pizza. But Amazon’s drones face some similar challenges. The big two:

Delivery drones can explode, or run into things. Unmanned drones are guided by not-always reliable GPS and equipped with metal-bladed propellers and batteries that may be prone to combustion. They’re likely to be impossible to use in many urban areas or anywhere near flight paths for commercial planes. “You’re never going to see them until they hit something. When they suck one of those drones into the engine of an airplane, then it’ll get everybody’s attention,” a former Continental Airlines pilot told ABC news earlier this year.

Commercial drone use won’t be approved for years. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos has admitted the 2015 timeline is “optimistic” and it could be four or five  years before regulations are in place, according to a recent interview with Charlie Rose. That may still be too hopeful. Despite pressure from companies and a law passed in 2012 to push commercialization of the technology, full blown certification of drones “isn’t slated to start until 2020,” judging by the aviation regulator’s early guidelines on drone testing, the Wall Street Journal reported in this Nov. 7 article. Test sites are expected to be announced this month, but decisions could be delayed because of privacy concerns.

So, what do Bezos and Amazon get out of the announcement, besides some skeptical publicity and a rash of “What could go wrong” jokes on Twitter? By making such a public splash, the company is practically guaranteed a place at the table in any future US discussions of commercial drone regulation. And when Amazon is viewed less as an online retailer and more as a company with “boundless ambition,” as one former employee put it, and one that wants to build the infrastructure of the internet economy over the long term, being a leader in drone delivery could be seen as a key part of Amazon’s future strategy. 

For now, though, the US Postal Service, DHL, UPS and FedEx are certain to employ plenty of real-live humans for many years to come.