Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 12/3/2013 | 96 comments

David Wagner
Amazon will soon deliver tablets, clothes, or pretty much anything else you want in the same time it takes to get a pizza, and it might mean every retailer will need its own air force. Amazon says that, as soon as FAA regulations clear it (possibly by 2015), the company will experiment with delivering products weighing less than five pounds (86% of its offerings) in 30 minutes or less by drone.

The eight-rotor octocopter drones will pick up the merchandise from one of Amazon's many fulfillment centers and fly it to your front porch, like in this video.

Obviously, Amazon won't be doing this with all its packages, but it envisions this as a quick service for high-priority products and the potential future of the delivery business. There's a lot to be worked out with the FAA first, so we still don't know if brick-and-mortar retailers need to be worried. We do know one group of people who should be seriously worried: CIOs.

If retailers, restaurants (Chinese food by air, anyone?), and shipping companies start using drones, even in a limited fashion, guess who is going to have deploy them? CIOs. To make this work, some extensive changes will have to be made to the supply chain. There will need to be new, automated fulfillment processes and inventory management.

The drones themselves will require infrastructure changes, including communications, security, and programming. Something with your name on it would be flying around using remote signals. You wouldn't want it to be hijacked and turned into a weapon, would you? You wouldn't want drones to deliver your merchandise to the wrong house routinely and cost your company in lost merchandise. And the drones would be another thing to patch, maintain, and put on a refresh cycle.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, is this science fiction or a near-horizon technology about to change our lives? There are a few hurdles to overcome to make this a successful business proposition.

  • Safety: Drones have triple the accident rate of manned vehicles. There are multiple reasons for this. People fly drones remotely, and the interface is often harder to deal with than one for a manned craft. With drones flying via programming, they are prone to bugs. If you have hundreds of drones flying overhead in urban environments, you've got to make sure they are safe. A few high-profile crashes could end the whole idea.

  • Scalability: Retail-oriented drones would likely fly at lower altitudes, where commercial air traffic is not an issue. One drone in the air would be no big deal, but when dozens or hundreds of drones are flying around, it becomes an absolute issue. If delivery drones for the Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, Amazon, and every pizza joint in town were all crisscrossing the skies, they would need their own air traffic control system. Who would pay for it, and how would it work?

  • Perception: Some people immediately distrust drones, because they were used first in military operations. In fact, a town in Colorado is offering a bounty for anyone who shoots down drones flying over their airspace. It is entirely possible we'll see scenes like this one play out all over America.

  • Privacy: The nightmare scenario is that drones mounted with cameras will be flying through our neighborhoods recording everything they see as they make their way to their customer. Who would own that data? How would it be kept? Could it be used against us legally? Would they see into our bedrooms and bathrooms?

There are also questions surrounding cost and the feasibility of a business plan for delivering a single package. But as drone capabilities increase and costs fall (both are inevitable), the reality of drone delivery -- not to mention driverless vehicle delivery -- will draw nearer.

It seems almost inevitable that we will soon live in a world with hundreds of tiny drones flying through the air and serving us. Retail CIOs need to prepare for the changes to supply chains and communications infrastructure. Government CIOs need to prepare to track all these new potential threats to national security and to safety. Are you ready?

What do you think about retail drones? Will they be a new paradigm in shopping, or will they just crash and burn? How will we handle the influx of technology in our enterprises and government? Tell us below.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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tjgkg   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   3/1/2014 1:25:02 PM
Re: Inevitable?
I think they did think about cars and trains in the 16th century. They just did not have the technology perfected. The drones are here but because of the way we have configured our society, they would be quite disruptive. It would be easier to have goods "beamed" over to households instead of drone dropped. But that technology is not here yet.
batye   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   2/6/2014 4:48:31 PM
Re: Inevitable?
technology changing our world and our way of thinking... in 16 century no one think about cars trains... we never know...
tjgkg   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   1/4/2014 1:14:29 PM
Re: Inevitable?
I can't even see them flying around safely let alone landing. There are so many tall buildings in Manhattan. In the outer boro's I can't really see how a drone will be able to deliver to all the blocks of apartments. And with two major airports and all those helicopters, and the memory of 9-11, I cannot see this as viable in NYC.
SaneIT   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   1/2/2014 7:20:18 AM
Re: Inevitable?
Really?  Meet SandFlea http://www.bostondynamics.com/robot_sandflea.html ,  RHex http://www.bostondynamics.com/robot_rhex.html and RiSe http://www.bostondynamics.com/robot_rise.html not to mention the humaniod robots Boston Dynamics is working on.  I think the three little bots could be easily modified to deliver small packages from a centeralized vehicle.
Sara Peters   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   12/31/2013 2:12:09 PM
Re: Inevitable?
@singlemud  Ah, now that makes sense -- using flying drones to access remote areas with no road access. I wonder if there would be enough commercial need for that to make it worth the cost of the drones and their maintenance.

Sara Peters   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   12/31/2013 2:10:15 PM
Re: Inevitable?
@SaneIT Hmm. I don't know if I like this idea. "A robot driven truck similar to the size of a UPS truck that contains a smaller robotic delivery bot." So far I haven't seen a bot that moves fast enough, or can hop up curbs, shimmy through tightly parked cars, or dodge mud puddles as well as delivery people.

SaneIT   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   12/31/2013 8:43:35 AM
Re: Inevitable?
I think for Amazon the first step should be flying these in their own warehouses.  That seems like the environment where they could be the most useful.  Controlled air flow, close proximity to charging stations and a crash isn't going to damage someone else's property.
singlemud   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   12/30/2013 5:14:43 PM
Re: Inevitable?
I totally agree, use Drone to Deliver may work for some special case, rural areas with no road access. I can not imagine these can be used in massive scale in big cities
SaneIT   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   12/23/2013 7:39:31 AM
Re: Inevitable?
I know they really want to do the airborne drone delivery but I just see a lot of problems that would stop that in it's tracks quickly due to costs that there is no way they can fully predict.
nasimson   Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver   12/22/2013 7:10:49 AM
Re: Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver
The feeling of getting my shopping bags at my doorstep in no time via drones gives me butterflies in my stomach. However, the weaknesses you have pointed out must be resolved soon in order to hit a home run.

Would you mind if Santa drops your present via drones this Christmas? 
Oh, I can hear the jingling sonic booms! 
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