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Amazon Eyes Drone Deliveries

by Brendan McGarry on December 3, 2013

Amazon_Prime_Air

First Domino’s, now Amazon.

Earlier this year, Domino’s Pizza made headlines when, as part of a marketing campaign in the United Kingdom, it released a video of a drone called the Domicopter delivering a pizza.

Earlier this week, Amazon​.com did the same when, during an interview with Charlie Rose on the CBS show “60 Minutes,” it unveiled a video of a so-called octocopter — an unmanned, GPS-guided craft with eight electric rotors — delivering a small package as part of a research and development project called Amazon Prime Air.

“I know this looks like science fiction,” Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos said during the interview, as a screen showed one of the devices grabbing a box from the assembly line, taking off and flying out of the building, then setting it down in the front yard of a residential home. “It’s not.”

The technology is still at least four to five years away and, as currently conceived, isn’t designed for big packages, Bezos said. “It won’t work for everything,” he told Rose. “We’re not going to deliver kayaks or table saws this way.”

Still, the Seattle-based online retailer could use the drones to offer 30-minute deliveries for products weighing as much as five pounds — which covers 86 percent of the items it ships, Bezos said. The current generation of aerial vehicles can fly a 10-mile radius from fulfillment centers, or giant distribution warehouses, he said.

While some have dismissed Amazon’s announcement as a publicity stunt perfectly timed for Cyber Monday, others say unmanned systems are poised to revolutionize the way we shop, just like they have with how we fight war.

“Drones hold the promise of companies anticipating our every need and delivering without human involvement,” Tim Draper, the founder of the Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, recently told Bloomberg News. “Everything from pizza delivery to personal shopping can be handled by drones.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is crafting guidelines for integrating unmanned systems into the national airspace by 2015.

Once that happens, adopting the devices for domestic use may increase the U.S. economy by at least $13.6 billion within three years, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, an industry lobbying group.

But thorny legal issues remain. For example, what kinds of flights would constitute a trespass? Would overhead flights impair the enjoyment of personal property? Couldn’t drones with powerful surveillance sensors, cameras and imaging systems easily violate someone’s privacy?

Perhaps the Defense Department or the Central Intelligence Agency might someday be interested in getting deliveries from Amazon Prime Air. After all, the CIA is already buying cloud-based computing infrastructure from the company as part of its Amazon Web Services to store government data and run agency websites.

“We’re building what’s called a private cloud for them,” Bezos said,” because they don’t want to be on the public cloud.”

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