This past weekend, just in time for Cyber Monday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed plans on 60 Minutes for delivery drones for Amazon Prime shipments weighing up to five pounds. While the target of getting drones involved in the next five years sounds ambitious, there are many questions and technological obstacles that need to be overcome first. Taken at a high level, Amazon states that the drones could handle up to 86% of all Amazon shipments, getting product to your door as quickly as 30 minutes after you place your order. If that sounds too good to be true, it probably is for most of us. People that live in densely populated areas would be the first target I would guess, with the service potentially spreading to other areas as it becomes feasible. Amazon would need to have warehouse locations within 10 miles of your office/residence to be within range, and they would need dozens if not hundreds of the drones at each location to handle the packages.

The timing of the broadcast is particularly telling, as Bezos noted that they have around 300 items ordered every second on Cyber Monday. That creates a lot of work for the shipment side of the business, but even if Amazon only tried to ship 10% of the packages by drone on such a busy day we'd be looking at 30 packages per second, an average delivery time of perhaps 20 minutes (1200 seconds), probably another 10 minutes for “refueling” (600 more seconds), and thus a drone fleet numbering 54,000 would be needed. If all orders were to be delivered by drones, we'd be looking at ten times that number – over half a million drones.

Even assuming the physical presence could happen (at least for some areas), there remain many other obstacles: weather, operating cost, reliability, potential for vandalism/theft, FAA regulations, etc. The drones are technically octocopters, and they're already being used for taking pictures and filming. Pricing for an octocopter large enough to carry a five pound package is going to be pretty obscene as well – around $10,000 seems like a reasonable baseline, though with mass production it might be lower. Of course there's still the need for the facilities and personnel to run the operation, so $20,000-$30,000 per drone might be a more reasonable estimate.

I know Amazon ships a lot of packages, but the changes in infrastructure alone make this something that will likely take much longer than five years before we see it widely used. I suspect more likely is that the first use of the service by Amazon will be as an optional shipping method that will cost a premium. Amazon Prime members currently get free 2-day shipping on qualifying orders, with discounted 1-day shipping as well. How much would people pay for 30-minute shipping if it were available? In some cases, it might be $100 or more. If Amazon were to charge $100 for drone shipping, and a drone could make on average 15 deliveries per day (seven days per week), each drone could potentially pay for itself within a month...or at $50 per delivery, two months. If on the other hand this is a “free for Amazon Prime” service, we'd likely be looking at a year or two just to cover the cost of the drone (and assuming no equipment failures).

Regardless of when or how drone shipments take place, there's no arguing with the fact that it's a really cool idea. It's the sort of thing we see and read about in sci-fi, and as is often the case it's more a question of “when” rather than “if”. Having just traveled over 2000 miles via car for Thanksgiving to be with family, it's in the same category as fully automated vehicles. I personally hope to live to see the day where I can hop in a car, tell it to “take me to my mom's house”, and then sit back and relax (or work) as the vehicle zips along at 100MPH, coordinating travel with satellite monitoring and nearby vehicles so as to avoid slow-downs, accidents, and other potential problems. I think it's inevitable that the day will come when computer-controlled vehicles take over for humans, and Amazon's drones are yet another herald of such advancements. I for one welcome our new electronic overlords. :-)

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  • Y0ssar1an22 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    What I don't get, and I've not seen discussed, is where exactly will the drone land and leave the delivery? Thinking back on everywhere I've lived they're all surrounded by wires, trees etc. Some were multi-unit apartments. At my current place the obvious option is right in the middle of the driveway, which 1) won't work if I'm parked there 2) is in the way if I'm not parked there 3) is highly visible for theft. Are the drones meant to swoop in, locate my door, and fly right up?
  • kdr9hu5 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I think it's likely we'll see something sooner in the way of packages delivered by drone from the UPS truck to your door. Much of the labor involved when for example UPS delivers packages is the driver stopping in front of your house, hopping out of the truck, carrying the package to your door and then hopping back in again. I think we'll see a small fleet of drones delivering small packages from the truck while the driver handles larger items and things that require special attention like signatures, etc. That will address the proximity and range issues Amazon will have to solve to realize what Bezos announced on Sunday. You wouldn't be seeing 30-minute delivery times, but it would definitely reduce cost on the part of shippers.
  • phillyboy - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I would think that they amortize the cost payback over a one-two year term, not a one-two month one. That would bring costs down quite a bit for shipping.
  • Dekker - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    Given a choice between 1) a guy in a red suit and a flying sleigh and 2) 54,000 delivery drones; I'm not sure which of the two delivery methods I find less plausible. The size of the average Amazon delivery box, high fuel cost of helicopters and the inability of drones to deal with inclement winter weather should be clear signs that this plan would fit better in an episode of The Jetsons.
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    As for who would actually use drone delivery, I can imagine parts being delivered to replace critical infrastructure. Stuff like IT equipment and medicine come to mind that would have a valid use for a 30 minute turn around time. (Granted, the selection of equipment that would weight under 5 pounds narrows the utility.) I used to work at a data center who had contracts in place for 4 hour turn around time for failed parts. Knocking that down to 30 minutes does have some merit.
  • jjj - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    Somewhat to my own surprise, i don't actually want this,at all. It will get really crowded,really fast and i thought we are working in the other direction towards less chaos,less pollution. Millions of buzzing drones 24/7 is not quite that.
  • Kurge - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    While this is currently far fetched and I would imagine at least a decade out for even limited real, production use I don't think the "but people can shoot them down, steal them!" argument useful.

    You can already do that. Hang out around my neighborhood for a while and you could probably easily find 10 packages sitting unguarded on people's porches. Or people could just go up to the UPS guy with a gun and a mask and say "give me all the stuff on your truck".

    It's not a meaningful drawback that someone could somehow get a hold of these in-flight.
  • Shadowmaster625 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    People are such suckers for giving this story so much attention. There is no way they make money off drones. Nobody is going to subsidize the cost. Nobody needs their package delivered enough to pay $100+ to have a drone deliver it. And I doubt it will ever cost less than that. Just imagine how many of these things will get shot down just for fun. At the rate youth unemployment is rising you're going to have dozens of gangs hanging out near amazon warehouses waiting for a chance just to win bragging rights, to say nothing of the cargo or the drone itself. No way. Not gonna happen. Not even close. People dont realize what kind of world we live in or how far things have gone in terms of social inequality. Sure, people get that technology is changing fast, but they dont seem to realize that other even more breathtaking changes are happening.
  • JeffFlanagan - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    People are putting a ton of thought into what was obviously a cyber-Monday marketing gimmick.
  • azazel1024 - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I think it is interesting, but I still see pitfalls. When/how/if could these be done as actual drones and when/how/if as remote piloted vehicles?

    The FAA proposed rules are rather early and not fully fleshed out from what I have seen.

    You also aren't likely to see these operated within city limits of most big cities (I think operating below roof height is likely to be verbotten in most/all cities, though maybe you could do roof top deliveries in a city...though a lot of buildings don't have roofs accessible to residents).

    Also, what about liability? These WILL crash. Frequently, maybe not. But there will still be mechanical failures that take them down, or crash in to power lines, or trees, or houses, get knocked down by a wind gust, etc.

    I am not strictly speaking to Amazon, a giant multinational which has resonable deep pockets. I am speaking of smaller drone operates and such. I think just like driving a vehicle, if you want to fly a drone, you should be required to have liability operator insurance to do so (cause if you crash your drone in to my house, darn right I am going after you with a suit).

    Also operating restrictions in general. Are you going to be able to fly it 50ft over my house? What about 15ft? I assume most of these are going to be gas powered, I don't need people flying giant weed whackers 10 ft over my house on a whim, thanks very much.

    I see the potential, but I also feel like laws and regulations as well as tort need a lot of filling in before its viable in a lot of ways, both as a delivery mechanism and anything else "wide spread".

    Just like driverless cars.

    Both are likely coming, but both need a lot of law, case law and regulation to happen first. For instance in a non-piloted drone or automated car, who is responsible in an accident? The owner? The notional "pilot" even if they aren't controlling it? The manufacturer? All of the above?

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