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

    More than likely electric as gas has too much vibration for the gyros/accels on board and there lies the problem.

    If he really wants this to be a reality and not just camera time, Bezos needs to produce a new energy source.

    ATM lithium polymer are the best bang for the weight and they have their limitations (although they have impressive amounts of power for their size and weight) - charging rate, discharge rate, amount of times they can be charged, etc. Just google lipo fire and you will see what happens when one of these let go, usually during charging. My thought was it was for camera time, hope he proves me wrong. The hobby side of multis would be happy for this as currently lipos are the best option for us with the vast majority in the 12.6 & 16.8V with currents for an octo up to 80-100A bursts if not more for what Bezos is suggesting.
    Reply
  • RU482 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    hey, get a high power rifle, sit a mile away from their warehouse with a large truck, and reap the rewards Reply
  • treeroy - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    Interesting article. I think it's nice to see Amazon trying to bring this fictional concept to reality - new breakthroughs in the way we live our lives have to start somewhere, even if that means this service will be very poor. (I assume there are all sorts of problems with this system that will take a while to get around)

    As for cars - I don't think we're too far off from that. People won't like it at first, but they will quickly adjust to it and it'll become the norm.
    Reply
  • bob4432 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    All being worked out by the hobby side of multirotors. Many Open Hard/Software Projects they could take and then tweak it to their desire, probably not giving the IP from the projects they picked it up from. Reply
  • eaanders22 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    Most of the issues you raise here were addressed in the Sixty Minutes interview. For example, this is a project for the future, five year or more from now, pending FAA regulations, etc. It is intended only for very small parcels, within ten miles of a fulfillment center. Hopefully those yellow plastic delivery boxes used for each shipment are recycleable and don't cost too much. Reply
  • bznotins - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    2000 miles by car? There's this thing called air travel. It's pretty cool. Might want to investigate that. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    You might want to look into trying to fly with two parents and three kids, with a transfer thrown in just for fun. Trust me, we've flown as a family, and it's no more fun than driving and often less so.

    Screaming kids in the car? Find a place to stop. Screaming kids in the plane? Too bad! You've got another hour or two! Oh, and hauling the luggage into the airport for two car seats and all the assorted clothing is a royal pain. Plus, if you fly you then need to rent a car (minivan) and work that into your schedule.

    If we were traveling more than 2000 miles one way, yes plane becomes more ideal, but for shorter distances the cost is actually less and the time spent on travel isn't much worse. Plus, we got to stop and see family/friends in three places along our route, vs. only going one place with a plane.
    Reply
  • sligett - Thursday, December 12, 2013 - link

    They've taken the cool out of air travel in so many ways. Reply
  • Cmason - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I don't really see how this will be entirely practical, and likely the biggest obstacle will be the last 50 feet. GPS, optical and acoustic sensors, combined with waypoint software work really well today to map out routes for photos etc. but these don't need "front door accuracy". Amazon will. If you get your package delivered to the pile of leaves in the backyard, or to the gutter in the street, or perhaps to your roof, you likely won't give Amazon Air good reviews. Yet how is a drone supposed to decide where exactly where the appropriate delivery spot is for every Amazon customer and every address? Reply
  • cspringer1234 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    A homing beacon that was shipped to you when you signed up for Amazon Air? Put it out where you want the package delivered? Reply

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