Amazon, the company that already automates many of its warehouses and fulfillment centers with robot workers, has unveiled Amazon Prime Air — a new delivery method that will see autonomous quadcopters deliver your order within 30 minutes. A couple of years from now, perhaps on Cyber Monday in 2015, you might be able to order a PS4 game or the latest smartphone and have it delivered to your door in half an hour.
At this point, you should probably watch the video below — and then read on for some discussion of the technological, regulatory, and practical issues that Amazon will face.
Technologically, Amazon Prime Air isn’t actually all that crazy. Jeff Bezos, speaking on the 60 Minutes TV show, says the quadcopters will be capable of delivering a five-pound (2.3 kg) package to addresses within 10 miles of an Amazon fulfillment center, within 30 minutes. Power-wise (or should we say battery-wise), this is feasible. A delivery time of 30 minutes should be possible, assuming Amazon uses an entirely automated process (i.e. robots) to pick your order and then load it onto a quadcopter. (Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva now makes a lot more sense.)
While the technology for Amazon Prime Air is in place, the requisite regulations certainly aren’t. Amazon says that its quadcopters and Prime Air service will be ready in time for FAA approval of civil unmanned aircraft (i.e. quadcopters, drones, etc.) in US airspace. If all goes to plan, the FAA hopes to have suitable regulation in place for civil unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by 2015. The current FAA UAS roadmap says very little about autonomous vehicles, though, and we’d be surprised if the 2015 regulations allow for Bezos’ vision of a fleet of autonomous quadcopters. (As far as the technology goes, though, autonomous quadcopters with built-in collision avoidance algorithms should be fairly common by 2015.)
Beyond technological and regulatory concerns, though, practical concerns are by far the largest potential pitfall for Amazon Prime Air. Imagine for a moment a fleet of Amazon Prime Air quadcopters above the skies of New York City. From my rooftop in Brooklyn, it would be awfully easy to shoot down some Amazon quadcopters with an air rifle and loot their bounty of emergency sriracha and condoms. Really, in this age of impulse buying, those quadcopters could be carrying some pretty valuable cargo (video games, engagement rings, etc.) If quadcopter hunting seems a bit over the top, there are also more mundane security concerns. In the video, the Prime Air quadcopter simply leaves the box outside your house. This might work in rural areas, where people have private backyards, but it’s completely infeasible in an urban, densely populated setting — and with a range of 10 miles, Amazon Prime Air is clearly targeted at exactly that market. How long do you think those pretty yellow boxes would last, on a sidewalk in Queens? (Watch: Nanocopters, Smartbirds, and beyond: The coolest robot videos ever.)
Still, as a concept, Amazon Prime Air is very exciting. While 2015 might be a little too optimistic, there’s no doubt that we’re moving towards a future that is increasingly ruled by autonomous robots and vehicles. There are absolutely massive gains to be made by speeding up and automating the retail experience, from warehouse to doorstep and every stage in between — gains that Amazon and other retail giants are guaranteed to take advantage of.