This past weekend, just in time for Cyber Monday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed plans on 60 Minutes for delivery drones for Amazon Prime shipments weighing up to five pounds. While the target of getting drones involved in the next five years sounds ambitious, there are many questions and technological obstacles that need to be overcome first. Taken at a high level, Amazon states that the drones could handle up to 86% of all Amazon shipments, getting product to your door as quickly as 30 minutes after you place your order. If that sounds too good to be true, it probably is for most of us. People that live in densely populated areas would be the first target I would guess, with the service potentially spreading to other areas as it becomes feasible. Amazon would need to have warehouse locations within 10 miles of your office/residence to be within range, and they would need dozens if not hundreds of the drones at each location to handle the packages.

The timing of the broadcast is particularly telling, as Bezos noted that they have around 300 items ordered every second on Cyber Monday. That creates a lot of work for the shipment side of the business, but even if Amazon only tried to ship 10% of the packages by drone on such a busy day we'd be looking at 30 packages per second, an average delivery time of perhaps 20 minutes (1200 seconds), probably another 10 minutes for “refueling” (600 more seconds), and thus a drone fleet numbering 54,000 would be needed. If all orders were to be delivered by drones, we'd be looking at ten times that number – over half a million drones.

Even assuming the physical presence could happen (at least for some areas), there remain many other obstacles: weather, operating cost, reliability, potential for vandalism/theft, FAA regulations, etc. The drones are technically octocopters, and they're already being used for taking pictures and filming. Pricing for an octocopter large enough to carry a five pound package is going to be pretty obscene as well – around $10,000 seems like a reasonable baseline, though with mass production it might be lower. Of course there's still the need for the facilities and personnel to run the operation, so $20,000-$30,000 per drone might be a more reasonable estimate.

I know Amazon ships a lot of packages, but the changes in infrastructure alone make this something that will likely take much longer than five years before we see it widely used. I suspect more likely is that the first use of the service by Amazon will be as an optional shipping method that will cost a premium. Amazon Prime members currently get free 2-day shipping on qualifying orders, with discounted 1-day shipping as well. How much would people pay for 30-minute shipping if it were available? In some cases, it might be $100 or more. If Amazon were to charge $100 for drone shipping, and a drone could make on average 15 deliveries per day (seven days per week), each drone could potentially pay for itself within a month...or at $50 per delivery, two months. If on the other hand this is a “free for Amazon Prime” service, we'd likely be looking at a year or two just to cover the cost of the drone (and assuming no equipment failures).

Regardless of when or how drone shipments take place, there's no arguing with the fact that it's a really cool idea. It's the sort of thing we see and read about in sci-fi, and as is often the case it's more a question of “when” rather than “if”. Having just traveled over 2000 miles via car for Thanksgiving to be with family, it's in the same category as fully automated vehicles. I personally hope to live to see the day where I can hop in a car, tell it to “take me to my mom's house”, and then sit back and relax (or work) as the vehicle zips along at 100MPH, coordinating travel with satellite monitoring and nearby vehicles so as to avoid slow-downs, accidents, and other potential problems. I think it's inevitable that the day will come when computer-controlled vehicles take over for humans, and Amazon's drones are yet another herald of such advancements. I for one welcome our new electronic overlords. :-)

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  • bob4432 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    You would be surprised how accurate multis (if set up correctly) are currently. I would say power is going to be more of an issue vs accuracy.
  • bob4432 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    Of course depending on the flight controller.
  • HisDivineOrder - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    There won't be cars that drive themselves because of the fact they wouldn't be able to figure out who to blame when inevitably there was an accident that wound up wrecking an entire highway.

    As for drones delivering packages, this will be field tested and when people begin to complain about drones landing on innocent children in a park somewhere, they'll be forced to suspend the program.

    ...Never to be restarted.

    Police tried to use drones to monitor speeders. Didn't happen, program shut down, and all for less reasons than this has to be shut down.

    It sounds futuristic, but let's be serious. Things stay the same. Look how long we've had the same basic design for the commode, toilet paper, tires, and the bathtub.

    The future is just more of the present 99% of the time.
  • Nagorak - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link

    This drones thing is total BS. We're not going to see drones making deliveries in 5 years. We're not going to see it in 25 years. It's too impractical to have drones flying around dropping objects. At best you'll get some sort of automatic delivery bot that runs on the ground. It's never going to be practical or safe to have dozens of drones buzzing around everywhere.
  • cboath - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link

    People will always find something to complain about. For some, it's almost as if it's their profession.

    If it reduced accidents tenfold (say 100,000 fewer) a year, yet they caused 5,000 a year, they throw hissy fits over the 5,000 and ignore the saved 95,000. It's the pathetic way it is unfortunately.

    I do think they'll eventually win out, but not in the next few years. I'm thinking 20 or so. People, on the whole, HATE change.

    As for the drones, i heard NYC and LA first. I'm curious as to how you get a drone to deliver a package to someone in a building with 1,000+ units in it. Drop it on the roof and tell them to check the roof in 30 minutes?
  • Arkive - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link

    Congrats to Amazon for presenting some vaporware that generates them an enormous amount of free advertising at a very opportune time. Well played.
  • justaviking - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link

    Excellent response, Jarred. Been there, done that.

    Even back in the day when I had "only" three kids, that would be FIVE plane tickets. Gee, I could afford to buy them, except those darn kids want stuff like food and clothes.

    And don't forget about the lack of flexibility. Suppose one kid gets sick the day you planned to travel (either direction)? At least in a car you can usually tweak your schedule.

    But best of all, in total seriousness, our family trips were great "bonding" times rather than the total horror depicted in most movies. And I still know almost every Sheron, Lois, and Braham song by heart.
  • azazel1024 - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link

    I am with you there, Jarred. I've got 3 under 6. No way I'd fly them. We went to Florida from Maryland a couple of years ago when it was just 2 kids and no way I would have considered flying. Cheaper to drive and easier, even if it takes more time.

    With 3, hahahaha. Not going to happen. We have to go back to Florida twice next year for a family reunion in February and a wedding in April. Driving, for sure. It's 18-20hrs, by car, but it isn't the end of the world. Just pack everyone in to the car a little before bedtime and drive through the night. I nap for a couple of hours ahead of time and I am fine driving through the night. Then my wife takes over in the morning after breakfast for a couple hours while I nap again and take over around lunch and roll in soon after lunch. That is for a 1,000 mile drive.

    Though this coming fall we are leaving our kids at home and flying I Cali for my brother-in-laws wedding. I wouldn't drive everyone 2,500 miles and I won't fly them that far/in general. Once the oldest are out of car seats and the youngest maybe takes a booster I'd consider it.
  • justaviking - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link


    This was a REPLY to the conversation about driving versus flying (a page or two back). I don't know why it posted as a new topic.

    I hope this one appears in the right place.
  • oranos - Thursday, December 5, 2013 - link

    i prefer humans

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