Amazon.com is working on a way to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less - via self-guided drone.
Consider it the modern version of a pizza delivery boy, minus the boy.
Amazon is working on the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project in its research and development labs. But the company says it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations.
The project was first reported by 60 Minutes, hours before millions of shoppers turned to their computers for Cyber Monday sales.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a primetime interview that while the 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 per cent of the items Amazon delivers. The drones the company is testing have a range of about 16kms, which Bezos noted could cover a significant portion of the population in urban areas.
While it's tough to say exactly how long it will take the project to get off the ground, Bezos told 60 Minutes that he thinks it could happen in four or five years.
"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," said Ray Kurzweil, a technology entrepreneur and futurist. Kurzweil's 2005 book "The Singularity is Near" argues that the age of smarter-than-human intelligence will arrive in the not-so-distant future.
"Drones will deliver packages and provide improved mapmaking and monitoring of traffic, but will introduce similar privacy concerns," he said. Kurzweil noted, however, that security cameras are already in most public spaces, not to mention the ubiquitous camera phone.
Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos' proposed flying machines wouldn't need humans sitting in a distant trailer to control them. Amazon's drones would receive a set of GPS coordinates and automatically fly to them, presumably avoiding buildings, power lines and other obstacles along the way.
Amazon spent almost US$2.9 billion in shipping last year, accounting for 4.7 per cent of its net sales.
Drone delivery faces several legal and technology obstacles 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 does occur, who is legally liable?
Then there are the security issues. Delivering packages by drone might be impossible in a city like Washington D.C. which has many no-fly zones.
"The technology has moved forward faster than the law has kept pace," said Brendan Schulman, special counsel at the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.
There is no prohibition on flying drones for recreational use, but since 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration has said they can't be used for commercial uses. Schulman is currently challenging that regulation before a federal administrative law judge on behalf of a client who was using a radio-controlled aircraft to shoot video for an advertising agency. Autonomous flights like Amazon is proposing, without somebody at the controls, are also prohibited.
The FAA is slowly moving forward with guidelines to allow expanded use of drones but has had numerous delays. Many of the commercial advances in drone use have come out of Europe, Australia, and Japan.
"The delay has really been to the disadvantage of companies here," Schulman said. "Generally, the government wants to promote the advancement of science and technology. In this case, the government has done exactly the opposite and thwarted the ability of small, startup companies to develop commercial applications for this revolutionary technology."
Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako said the company has been in contact with the FAA "as they are actively working on necessary regulation."
Bezos founded Amazon.com in 1994 after quitting his job at a Wall Street hedge fund. With Bezos' parents and a few friends as investors, Amazon began operating out of the Bezos Seattle garage as an online bookseller on July 16, 1995. In the nearly two decades since, Amazon has grown to become the world's largest online retailer, selling everything from shoes to groceries to diapers and power tools.
Amazon's business plan has been to spend heavily on growing its business, improving order fulfilment and expanding into new areas. Those investments have come at the expense of consistent profitability, but investors have been largely forgiving, focusing on the company's long-term promise and double-digit revenue growth. Though it may be years before it's reality, drone-powered delivery fits with the company's plan to make delivery as convenient - and fast - as possible.
One of the biggest promises for civilian drone use has been in agriculture.
The unmanned aircraft can fly over large fields and search out bugs, rodents and other animals that might harm crops. Then, thanks to GPS, another drone could come back and spread pesticide on that small quadrant of the field.
Agriculture is also seen as the most-promising use because of the industry's largely unpopulated, wide open spaces. Delivering Amazon packages in midtown Manhattan will be much trickier. But the savings of such a delivery system only come in large, urban areas.
Besides regulatory approval, Amazon's biggest challenge will be to develop a collision avoidance system, said Darryl Jenkins, a consultant who has given up on the commercial airline industry and now focuses on drones.
Who is to blame, Jenkins asked, if the drone hits a bird, crashes into a building? Who is going to insure the deliveries?
There are also technical questions. Who will recharge the drone batteries? How many deliveries can the machines make before needing service?
"Jeff Bezos might be the single person in the universe who could make something like this happen," Jenkins said. "For what it worth, this is a guy who's totally changed retailing."
The biggest losers could be package delivery services like the US Postal Service, FedEx and UPS.
FedEx spokesman Jess Bunn said in an email: "While we can't speculate about this particular technology, I can say that making every customer experience outstanding is our priority, and anything we do from a technology standpoint will be with that in mind."
The US Postal Service wouldn't speculate about using drones for mail delivery. Spokeswoman Sue Brennan referred any questions to Amazon.
Amazon, one of the Postal Service's major customers, recently partnered with the agency to begin delivering packages on Sunday in major metropolitan areas. Sunday service will be available to Amazon Prime members in the New York and Los Angeles areas first, followed by other large cities next year.
Here are some novel ways consumer might make use of a delivery drone service.
Here are some novel ways consumer might make use of a delivery drone service:
❏ Sitting at the stadium and don't want to pay for a beer? No worries, as an Amazon Prime customer, the "Amazon Express Chopper" will bring you a cold six-pack of your favorite craft beer for just $7.
❏ You're out on a romantic picnic with your girlfriend when the silence is broken by a low buzzing. The chopper slowly approaches her with a diamond ring and a note: Will you marry me?
❏ Out hiking in the woods and hungry? Don't fret. Amazon will bring you a hot pizza with all the toppings. And don't forget that 30-minutes-or-less guarantee.
❏ Want the latest news? Twitter and iPhones are so 2013. Amazon will bring you a freshly printed copy of the Bezos-owned Washington Post.
❏ For the right price, maybe the drone will even change your baby's diaper and fly off with the dirty one.
❏ Your high school English teacher announces a Monday morning pop quiz. But you didn't bother to read Macbeth over the weekend. No worries, Amazon will race the quick notes version to you faster than you can say "summer school".
❏ Forgot your mother's birthday? No you didn't. Amazon will fly flowers to her doorstep with "hand-signed" card -at any hour.
❏ Improve your social media appearance with a little help from a well-timed Amazon drone dispatched to hover above you with a smartphone awaiting your word. Just gaze skyward and smile. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will never be the same.
❏ Autograph hounds will relish sending a drone over the seething masses to get the signature of their favorite celebrity or ballplayer. Just make sure the Amazon drone knows how to spell your name.
❏ Scorching sun and an empty bottle of sunscreen won't ruin a relaxing day at the beach. Just fill out an Amazon order and a new bottle will quickly arrive. Pay a little extra and the drone might just apply sunscreen to that hard-to-reach spot on your back.
❏ Finally, an unmanned aircraft could be used to deliver your very own drone. Just don't use the new toy to start delivering goods yourself. If you do, Bezos might send his new drone army after you.