Perhaps inspired by Domino’s stunt in June, Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) now wants to use unmanned aerial vehicles commonly known as “drones” to deliver packages to its online customers. During a “60 Minutes” segment that aired Sunday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced “Amazon Prime Air,” which aims to deliver packages within 30 minutes of the order being placed with the help of drones flying directly from Amazon’s "fulfillment centers" (i.e. warehouses) sprinkled around the country.
“I know this looks like science fiction – it’s not,” Bezos told CBS. “It will work and it will happen. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
In the first Amazon Prime Air promotion video, a customer places an online order but opts for the “Prime Air 30 Minute Delivery” option. From within the Amazon fulfillment center, the order is placed within a plastic yellow box onto a conveyor belt, which carries the item down the track to its intended target: The Amazon Prime Air drone. Once the drone senses the yellow container, its arms latch onto the box and the octocopter drone, with its eight blades, immediately takes off.
Eventually, the Amazon Prime Air drone lands in the backyard of a customer’s home, and the customer quickly comes out to retrieve his package, which had been ordered 30 minutes (or less) prior.
Bezos believes “the hardest challenge in making this happen is demonstrating to the standards of the FAA that this is a safe thing to do,” which will take “years of additional work.” The FAA does have strict standards for drones -- it currently bans any UAVs for commercial purposes, and has done so since 2007 -- since it’s not unreasonable to want to prevent flying robots from whizzing by people’s heads to deliver socks or tennis rackets or suntan lotion.
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But besides getting a permit from the FAA to test and deploy drones, here are five ways we can see Amazon’s “Prime Air” drone delivery service going wrong:
1. Battery life. Will drones be efficient if they burn through their batteries so quickly? The premium AR Drone 2.0 from Parrot, which is roughly two years old, can only handle about 12 minutes of battery life – will Amazon need to replace the batteries of its drones after every flight? How will Amazon efficiently monitor the battery life of its drones? Will Amazon simply limit the available locations where Prime Air is offered? Amazon certainly can’t afford these robots to fall out of the sky before they reach their destination, or before they can return to the Amazon fulfillment center.
2. Protection. How will Amazon protect its drones? Flying from fulfillment centers to residential areas and places of business will certainly be a difficult challenge, especially with so many factors at play. How will it avoid physical obstacles like trees and telephone poles? How will it protect itself from people who will surely try to shoot these things down and collect the prizes for themselves? Not all packages are created equal – how will the drones accommodate packages of different sizes? What kind of insurance policy will Amazon offer its users? Security is always the prime concern with any kind of delivery service, so Amazon will need to figure out how it can best protect its drones, as well as the packages they carry.
3. Delivery. How will Amazon accommodate those customers who want packages delivered to a specific area? Some homeowners prefer packages be left in the atrium or breezeway to their houses, as opposed to being left outside exposed. What if the customer lives in an apartment building, or an office building? Will the drone be able to fly up to the 16th floor? If the Amazon Prime Air cannot go indoors, how will the drone be able to verify and authenticate the identity of the customer? Customers won’t care about the Amazon drone if the package wasn’t delivered correctly, or sufficiently.
4. Weather. What happens if it rains? What about thunderstorms? What if a gust of wind knocks an Amazon drone out of the sky? Like all electronics, drones are highly susceptible to their environments, and it doesn’t look like Amazon has designed its Prime Air drones to be any less vulnerable than most robots or electronics. Amazon’s Prime Air delivery service may not be so effective if it can only be offered on calm sunny days.
5. Timing. In the promotional video, the Prime Air drone flies away before the customer even comes outside to receive his package. Will this be the case for all Prime Air orders? If the drones are all being timed, will a drone wait around for a customer to greet it, or will it drop the package and fly off to attend to the next order? The drones may be on time, but what happens if the customer is late? Will the drone accommodate and wait for the customer to arrive before it leaves? What if the package arrives after 30 minutes? Will customers get their money back? Amazon faces considerable hurdles with the Prime Air service, considering its incredibly fast turnaround times, but safety and security are certainly more important than speed in these regards.
In many ways, the Amazon Prime Air drone service seems like a half-baked idea. Similar to Google Glass’ unveiling in April 2012, the service may be exciting, but is clearly years away from being public-ready. The current conditions, including the technology, the politics (the FAA won’t issue the first licenses until 2015, and it doesn't plan to commercially certify drones until 2020) and the risk factors outlined above, do not favor Amazon Prime Air. So why did Bezos unveil this service on Sunday?
Previously announced drone delivery services were admittedly PR stunts; Amazon promises its Prime Air drone service will actually come to fruition, but whether or not Amazon drones become a reality within the next six years, one thing is for sure: Amazon Prime Air was an extremely effective (and free) way to advertise the company just in time for Cyber Monday, one of Amazon’s most important retail holidays of the year. According to Alexa.com, Amazon, Amazon.com and Amazon Prime Air were three of the top search terms on Dec. 2.
For two more takes on Amazon Prime Air, a group of Taiwanese animators created a video depicting the possible issues with Amazon's drone delivery service (embedded below), and Stephen Colbert also tackled Amazon Prime Air on his Comedy Central program "The Colbert Report," with mildly hilarious results (embedded at the bottom, courtesy of Hulu).