Unmanned aerial vehicles already carry packages weighing up to five pounds
Amazon is testing package delivery using airborne drones with a view to launching an Amazon Prime Air service sometime around 2018, CEO Jeff Bezos revealed on US television on Sunday.
However, even if the technology works as advertised, drone delivery still faces plenty of challenges if it is to become a reality, not least because of the lack of rules and regulations.
According to Bezos, unmanned octocopters developed at Amazon’s own R&D labs can carry up to five pounds (2.3 kg) of cargo from the company’s distribution centres to customer homes. It is currently unclear just how much distance these tiny vehicles can cover, but Bezos says 86 percent of packages shipped by Amazon fall under the weight limit.
In the future, Amazon could deliver shopping within 30 minutes of customer paying for the order. As a proof of concept, the company has posted a video which shows one of its drones delivering a package, embedded below.
The main issue facing Amazon’s ambitious plans is the US Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t cleared unmanned aerial vehicles for civilian purposes. So far, it has allowed around 1,400 drones to be used by US government organisations, but new rules encouraging wider adoption are expected by 2015.
“From a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place,” says a statement on the Amazon blog.
Some observers have suggested that unmanned drones carrying valuable cargo would become a prime target for thieves. Drone hacking is another problem that could put a dampener on Amazon’s plans.
“Safety will be our top priority, and our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards,” said the company.
“We are very likely to see a lot of progress in this area over the next decade,” commented Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal from the Institution of Engineering and Technology.
“However, there are many challenges to overcome. Top of the list is the need to mature the technologies and demonstrate to the regulators that Unmanned Aircraft can operate safely in our airspace. The ASTRAEA programme in the UK is addressing this. Initially we would anticipate that high value packages, such as transplant organs, be candidates for such a service.”
Earlier this year, Google chairman Eric Schmidt had warned that drones operated by civilians could pose new privacy and security risks. Back in 2010, Schmidt’s company was accused of experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles, something it vehemently denied.
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