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Amazon drones: Bold experiment or shrewd publicity stunt?

Amazon faces a ton of hurdles when it comes to deploying delivery drones, but the idea isn't as farfetched as it first might sound.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
4 min read
Amazon Prime Air octocopter
An Amazon Prime Air octocopter. CBSNews.com/Screenshot by CNET

Amazon's scheme to send delivery drones into the skies may sound crazy, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.

First, let's get the "60 Minutes" profile out of the way. The segment, which had CEO Jeff Bezos pondering the notion of unmanned drones ferrying packages to your doorstep, brought an air of whimsy and innovation to Amazon. It also aired the day before Cyber Monday, the key online shopping day of the year, and quickly injected Amazon's Prime Air octocopter into the top headline of every major news site. (CBS, which produces "60 Minutes," is also is the parent company to CNET.)

But even publicity stunts have their roots in the truth, and Amazon may be on to something. For one, the technology behind autonomous drones has been around for a while. And as Amazon has demonstrated time and time again, it's willing to bet big on long-term projects.

If there's one company that can pull off unmanned delivery drones, it would be Amazon.

"When [Bezos] first started talking about the idea of Amazon in the first place and having this delivery mechanism, everyone thought he was crazy," said Jono Millin, co-founder of DroneDeploy. "Now, he's talked about these futuristic mechanisms, but as an industry we know it's totally possible."

Millin should know. His startup creates software to manage fleets of drones for commercial use, and he said some businesses are already planning to use drones to deliver things on a small scale.

Amazon's splashy announcement could bring awareness and interest into this area, and ease the public into the idea of delivery drones flying in our skies, Millin said.

DroneDeploy is also running tests on its software designed to manage multiple drones safely without a remote control. Millin wouldn't say if the company has talked to Amazon about using its software, but the platform DroneDeploy is building would be something a commercial company like Amazon could use to manage a fleet.

Trying to explain to consumers that drones can be used for a myriad of purposes -- including agriculture, pipeline surveying, or hunting for poachers -- other than military operations is often daunting, he said. But, Amazon using flying robots to deliver small packages within 30 minutes? Everyone can understand that concept.

"I think it would be really awesome to have people say, 'Oh, it's like Amazon Prime Air,'" Millin said.

When DroneDeploy started gaining media attention this past summer, Millin said it was the fast food companies that approached the company with visions of flying tacos and pizzas to hungry consumers. He said Amazon's news is a much more realistic example.

That doesn't mean there is an easy road ahead, of course. Amazon and other companies interested in operating drones are at the mercy of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees safety issues in aviation. The FAA released a plan last month, outlining how it would establish regulations for non-military autonomous drone operations. These regulations are still years away.

Bezos said FAA guidelines are expected in 2015, but the FAA's planning document is full of varying timelines for different types of services. It's unclear which category Amazon's drones would fall into. The FAA isn't saying much more about its plans, so it's unclear if the agency's progress is in line with Bezos' ambitious timeline.

The FAA did say it's selecting six drone service sites by the end of the year to do testing and gather data for these guidelines, which would determine how to safely incorporate commercial drones into our airspace. Only one commercial operator has been approved so far, and it's located in the Arctic. Amazon said it has not applied to be a part of these tests, but the company is in contact with the FAA to provide input during the process.

There will be other regulatory hoops to jump through, particularly with the public perception of what flying robots mean for privacy issues. The Senate had already planned to hold a hearing specifically on Amazon's new drones as a part of its efforts to review the general use of commercial drones. It's past hearings have focused on surveillance drones used by police and other government agencies.

Amazon does octocopters! (pictures)

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What's more is the limitations on what a drone can carry and where it can travel. Bezos said on "60 Minutes" that the drones can carry up to 5 pounds, which is 86 percent of what Amazon delivers. He said they can travel within a 10-mile radius from a fulfillment center. In urban areas, that could cover a significant part of the population, he said.

That may be so, but delivering in urban areas is no small task. The company will have to program the drones to automatically navigate buildings and people, all while adhering to whatever restrictions the FAA develops. Not impossible, but still complex. In the end, it's probably more efficient just to drop multiple items in a truck and deliver them by ground.

Where it does make sense is in rural areas, Millin said. Like Alaska, a place with a small population relative to its vastness of land. It's expensive to deliver things to Alaska, since most resources need to be shipped in, and trucks have to go great distances even if they are only dropping off a small shipment.

And what about the risk of people stealing drones as they flit about or when they land to drop off a package? People trying to knock them out of the sky? Well, that would be stupid, really.

While the drone would probably be most at-risk during takeoff and landing, it's more difficult to steal a flying robot than you might think.

"I imagine the Amazon delivery drone would be most at risk during takeoff and landing, but I imagine the rotors wouldn't come to a stop, so an opportunist couldn't casually pick it up and walk away without injury," Millin said diplomatically. "An attempt at this would have to be premeditated, and in my mind similar to stealing a parked FedEx truck."