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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  • oranos - Thursday, December 5, 2013 - link

    this invades on people's rights to earn a fair wage. You can't just eliminate jobs like that or cut in line because you want to. Sure it's only amazon at first but then what?
  • abbeytim - Friday, December 6, 2013 - link

    ooh and what about thieves now they just need to get a gun and shoot the drones down :D
  • Woochifer - Friday, December 6, 2013 - link

    I'm glad that someone has focused some attention on those inconvenient questions dealing with the practicality of delivery drones.

    The fawning, uncritical tech press fell for Bezos' publicity stunt hook, line, and sinker. To most of them, practical and incremental is boring when pie-in-the-sky pontification warrants hero worship of the tallest order. They smugly view themselves as the leading edge thinkers that everybody else must follow (which explains why they are bloggers and reviewers, right?). Yet, their blathering reflects a contempt for how end users actually use technology.

    As other commenters have pointed out, aside from the economic considerations, the biggest hurdle here is simply getting the drone to navigate the final 100 feet. You have kids playing near their homes, cars pulling into driveways, people walking on sidewalks, security doors, porch steps, etc. And then you have the obstacle that I haven't seen anyone talk about -- how does a drone navigate around utility lines?

    For both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, the FAA has safety standards as to how much clearance is needed for a landing zone. Even for a drone, I doubt that the FAA will declare a front porch as having sufficient clearance for a drone to land, especially with other low level obstacles.

    As they say, the devil's in the details and most of the tech press obviously cannot be bothered by such inconveniences.
  • jasonelmore - Friday, December 13, 2013 - link

    If amazon made the drones themselves, they could get the cost down to as low as $400 a drone. I'm speaking strictly Bill of Materials Cost. R&D Cost is going to be significant.

    The most expensive components will be the various sensors (Sonar, Li-Dar, Camera,) and SOC, the rest of the stuff is not that expensive.
  • Kutark - Monday, December 16, 2013 - link

    Am i the only one who read this and thought "wow, that would be a stupidly easy way to get your sh*t stolen while its being delivered".

    Seriously, unless these drones are flying at some crazy heights, a kid with a slingshot could knock one of these well enough out of balance to cause it to crash, and then bam, free stuff for the kid, and wrecked drone for amazon.

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