Amazon's plan to eventually enlist self-guided drones to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less, revealed Sunday night on CBS' "60 Minutes," opens a host of possibilities -- and hazards.
Amazon.com Inc. says it's working on the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project in its research and development labs. The company admits it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in the prime-time interview that while his 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.
Bezos told "60 Minutes" the project could become a working service in four or five years.
Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos' proposed flying machines won'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.
Delivery drones raise a host of concerns, from air traffic safety to homeland security and privacy. There are technological and legal obstacles, too -- 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? Privacy issues would also doubtless arise.
Drone delivery will be "very hard to execute," says Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. But if Bezos "could really deliver something you order within 30 minutes, he would rewrite the rules of online retail."
Bezos' idea about delivering products by drone is "fascinating," said Jeffrey Ehrlich, president of Fulfillment Plus, Inc. in Holtsville., which packages and ships online orders for retailers. "I want one," he said.
But "until the drone is available," he added, " . . . UPS, FedEx or the Post Office will still be delivering packages."
With Keiko Morris