On Sunday, Amazon announced an innovation in package delivery so fantastic sounding, it had to assure people that it wasn’t a hoax.
Prime Air is the company’s conceptual new service in which octocopter drones—unmanned aircraft with eight rotors—deliver Amazon packages weighing up to five pounds to your door in just 30 minutes. On a 60 Minutes segment, CEO Jeff Bezos previewed a recent test run:
If it sounds too incredible to be true, it’s because it is—for now. Bezos predicted Prime Air is still “four to five” years off. Why announce it now? Probably to ensure that, on the eve of Cyber Monday, Amazon is all anybody will be talking about.
Amazon has caught our attention, but can it, well, deliver? Here are some of the hurdles Prime Air will need to overcome in order to become a reality.
The most pressing hurdle in Prime Air’s way is the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration currently doesn’t permit commercial drones in U.S. airspace. Congress has ordered the FAA to deliver a road map by the end of this year; the first draft was announced in November.
As Amazon observes, the FAA is supposed to have a roadmap for integrating drones in place by 2015. Amazon says, “we will be ready at that time.”
Surprisingly, the FAA’s reluctance to quickly legalize drones has nothing to do with the gadgets' reputation as killing machines elsewhere in the world. It’s all about privacy concerns, and whether or not drones in U.S. airspace could be used to spy on citizens. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, eight states have passed legislation against commercial drones concerning surveillance data collection.
Of course Prime Air drones won’t be designed to spy on people; the question is whether or not they could be used that way. Unfortunately, since the FAA’s 100-page draft roadmap fails to meet legislators’ privacy concerns, we may not find out until after 2015.
There’s a reason Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired turned commercial drone mogul, called delivery by drone “incredibly stupid.”
"We love drones for agriculture because there are no people there, but using drones for delivery in built-up areas around people might not be the best idea," he said.
It’s easy to imagine the problems that could come from the eight-rotored flying robots coming into contact with soft human flesh. And unlike the unmanned aerial vehicles the U.S. military uses for overhead surveillance around the world, octocopters fly low in the sky, diving low enough to touch when they hover to deliver packages.
Some early quadcopters have found at least superficial solutions to the problem. The AR.Drone Parrot comes with a foam frame around its rotors so they can’t run into people. But the problem is compounded when you consider the fact that Prime Air could have dozens of octocopters hovering around the same apartment building during a particularly busy Cyber Monday.
We know it’s easy to deliberately hurt people with drones. Prime Air will have to develop a way for octocopters to do their jobs while keeping people safe.
Theft and Hacking
With any new development in technology, there are criminals and pranksters who find ways to turn it on its head.
When the news hit Twitter late Sunday, many users cracked jokes about the supposedly increased ease of Amazon package theft.
Couch conversation: if I shoot that down, I keep the box. Right?— Max Fenton ✰ (@maxfenton) December 2, 2013
Most people wouldn’t hijack a mail truck. Yet, much in the way antisocial behavior increases over the Internet, criminal behavior might seem less harmful when it’s against a robot instead of a human. It could become one more way to lose a package in transit.
Even if this scenario is a little too breathless for you, it’s still well known that today’s drone technology is vulnerable to being hacked. Last year, a research team at the University of Texas told Congress how it was able to hack an $80,000 drone with a store-bought GPS device.
"If you can convincingly fake a GPS signal, you can convince an [unmanned aerial vehicle] into tracking your signal instead of the authentic one, and at that point you can control the UAV," said Todd Humphreys, an assistant professor specializing in orbital mechanics.
The good news for Amazon is that commercial drone services in other countries may face these hurdles first. For example, Shenzhen-based Chinese delivery company SF Express is already experimenting with octocopter delivery.
SF Express’s pioneering service could be Prime Air’s petri dish, resolving these issues before Prime Air even gets off the ground.