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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  • hughlle - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    Or say, how do they deliver a package to an apartment building on the street that requiers the postman to go through a set of doors, possibly security doors, and sign the parcel over to the concierge etc.

    I think people are under some bizarre notion that this will be rolled out nationwide, to every barn and shed. Likely like with a lot of things, it would only be implemented in certain areas. Look at something like LTE coverage. If they can't even get you a decent mobile data connection or hell, broadband connection, do they really think they'll be getting 30 minute drone deliveries?

    I for one have no interest in this technology at present. You will be paying a substantial premium for this service, and while i'm just pulling figures out of thin air, or rather not even using any figures, i'd be willing to be that a lot of the time it would cost a lot more than if you just spent the extra and bought it in a shop. Just look how few people actually pay the 4-5x price increase for saturday shipping, VERY few in comparisson to total sales. The widespread use of amazons free economy shipping has clearly shown that people are more than happy to wait a few days for their products.

    I would be interested to see the figures of free, standard, and expensive next day.
    Reply
  • Tegeril - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I'm confused about your first concern. Why would you elect for 30 minute delivery to an apartment building if you were not going to be there to receive it? It would be almost *no* additional effort to have the drone trigger a text alert when it is 5 minutes out, and you head downstairs and pick up the package yourself. If concierge were going to be signing for your package for you to pick up later in the day wouldn't you instead opt for their same day delivery service (where available) which is cheaper? Or overnight?

    I'm also confused about "Just look how few people actually pay...for saturday shipping" followed by "I would be interested to see the figures..."
    Reply
  • abazigal - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link

    I am actually thinking that you could leave your window open. The drone would fly in, drop off your package and fly back out. Gets around having to bypass all those layers of security. :p Reply
  • QuadcopterHQ - Friday, December 6, 2013 - link

    1. I think they'll just go with cardboard disposable boxes, or figure out a postal service pickup for the disposable cases.
    2. Fair point - I think this, along with getting regulatory approval on the safety point, will be its biggest hurdle.
    3. Really? Do people do this? Do you shoot at UPS trucks? Do you steal packages off porches? Sure some idiot will inevitably do that, but just wait until they get prosecuted.
    4. I'm happy with 2 day delivery, but I'd be much happier with one day, or 30 minute, delivery. Quicker is always better! And there are plenty of folks that would pay a large premium.

    Pretty interesting idea overall though, and I'm curious about what hardware they will use and their average cost. Like some others said below, you can get the AR.Drone 2.0 for $300 and the DJI Phantom for $450 (http://quadcopterhq.com/best-quadcopters/) though both of those aren't really up to the task of hauling goods and weight. I'm thinking in the $2,000 range and custom built, but we'll see!
    Reply
  • Deelron - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I can't wait for faster deliveries to places that already have ready access to everything, not to mention how little this will actually impact congestion. Reply
  • quickbunnie - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    If this is developed in-house, I have to guess that $10k is an absurdly high number. Sure, the basically pilot scale production with which octocopters are produced means they are aggressively trying to offset all the R&D costs for available units today (in addition to potentially making big per unit profits). But I really can't imagine that a metal framework, 10-mile radio communication module, on-board sensors and controllers, a GPS unit, 8 brushless DC motors, and a battery will cost $10k. The actual bill of materials is going to be more like $500-1000.

    Instead of comparing it to low-volume commercial octocopters, I think it would be more like the cost of 2 Parrot AR Drone.2 Quadricopters (~$300 each) and an older iPhone (~$400) glued together.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I don't think a drone designed to carry up to five pounds is going to be twice the cost of a Parrot AR that weighs about one pound and has very limited range. You need a much larger motor to carry five pounds, which means more battery capacity to run it, plus the range issue. The R&D costs for the first prototypes is likely already into the hundreds of thousands, and they're not even really doing what's needed. Reply
  • quickbunnie - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I thought the range issue was limited by the phone to AR interface? And I'm quoting retail costs for the Parrot drones, not even the bill of materials (which are being sold for more like $250-270).

    But you're right - its going to be more than that - I still have a hard time believing that its going to end up costing $10k per drone, certainly not from a bill of materials standpoint. I think the bill of materials would run probably around $2-3k after checking prices for brushless DC motors (which is probably going to be the most expensive part). That's still with off-the-shelf parts. After that, I guess it really just depends on volume of the drones produced to offset whatever R&D cost went into the project.
    I dunno, don't you think that Amazon had to know the costs before they decided to start R&D in the project? Unless they really haven't put any R&D in it, and it really is just a publicity stunt, which is possible. But operating under the assumption that they are actively researching the feasibility of drone delivery systems, I think it must be under the pretense that its financially viable.
    Reply
  • quickbunnie - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    Whether it is actually viable, it another matter entirely. FCC/FAA may never approve, would only work in areas that are not as population dense because of the difficulty to delivering to apartments, etc. I think its still unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon, but my guess is that it won't be a technological cost limitation. Reply
  • Iketh - Thursday, December 5, 2013 - link

    What I think is interesting is they'll initially need plenty of drones when they launch in an area because imagine getting overrun with those delivery requests and all the drones are already out delivering.

    Also interesting is they'll probably have the drones land in a huge warehouse on wireless chargers, similar to how the newest smartphones are charged nowadays.
    Reply

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