Uncertainty is in the air after Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos announced Sunday that his company is working on a way to use the small aircraft to get parcels to customers in 30 minutes or less.
While flight technology makes it feasible, U.S. law and society's attitude toward drones haven't caught up with Bezos' vision — it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations.
Delivery drones raise a host of concerns, from air traffic safety to homeland security and privacy. There are technological and legal obstacles, too —similar to Google's experimental driverless car. How do you design a machine that safely navigates the roads or skies without hitting anything? And, if an accident occurs, who's legally liable?
The FAA plans to propose rules next year that could allow limited use of drones weighing up to 55 pounds. But those rules are expected to include major restrictions on where drones can fly, posing significant limits on what Amazon could do. Delivering packages by drone might be impossible in a city like Washington D.C., for instance, which has many no-fly zones.
Experts cited by the USA Today say that once the FAA sets its drone regulations, the new niche could boost the economy by at least $13.6 billion in the first three years and the economic benefit may top $82 billion between 2015 and 2025.
According to estimates by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a lobbying group for the industry, quoted by the paper, integrating drones into U.S. airspace could also create more than 70,000 new jobs in the first three years.
Technology entrepreneur and futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that "technology has always been a double edged sword."
"Fire kept us warm and cooked our food but also was used to burn down our villages," says Kurzweil.
"It's fascinating as an idea and probably very hard to execute," says Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies who sees Bezos as an unconventional thinker. "If he could really deliver something you order within 30 minutes, he would rewrite the rules of online retail."
Amazon has already done that once. In 1995, with investments from family and friends, Bezos began operating Amazon as an online bookseller out of a Seattle garage. Over nearly two decades, Amazon grew to become the world's largest online retailer, selling everything from shoes to groceries to diapers and power tools.
Bezos said in the interview Sunday with CBS' "60 Minutes" that while his octocopters look like something out of science fiction, there's no reason they can't be used as delivery vehicles.
Bezos said the drones can carry packages that weigh up to five pounds, which covers about 86 percent of the items Amazon delivers. The drones the company is testing have a range of about 10 miles, which Bezos noted could cover a significant portion of the population in urban areas.
According to Bezos, the project could become a working service in four or five years.
Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos' proposed flying machines won't need humans to control them remotely. Amazon's drones would receive a set of GPS coordinates and automatically fly to them, presumably avoiding buildings, power lines and other obstacles.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.