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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  • dishayu - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I'm not sure why it's causing all this buzz when Amazon did it. Domino's did this several months ago and it didn't create nearly as much noise.

    With reference to the last paragraph about automatic cars : I think it will take much longer than expected. This is for a simple reasons that computer controlled cars aren't likely be 100% crash proof either (maybe 99.999% but not 100). Even if the computer controlled cars reduce road accidents 10 folds, the (reduced) number of accident victims will still create noise and not let this play out. I mean I can't think of people taking kindly to that at all. People would always believe that the accident wouldn't have happened if they were at the wheel.
  • jamyryals - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    People will be incentivized to use automated systems by lower insurance rates. It will happen, and I cannot wait to reclaim my commute time.
  • Murloc - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    I don't see how it is reclaimed, if you sit in a car and do other stuff instead of looking at the road you're going to be nauseated.
    Unless your commute is mostly in a traffic jam that makes you stop completely.
  • Boogaloo - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    > if you sit in a car and do other stuff instead of looking at the road you're going to be nauseated.

    This is far from universal. In fact, a quick search shows that the vast majority of people don't have any issues with motion sickness.
  • c4keislie - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    Not everyone gets nauseated in the car... For instance I do not.
  • kirsch - Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - link

    You can reclaim lost sleep. I get car sick if I start doing stuff, but I can definitely nap.
    I also wonder if the car sickness is something you can get rid of with time/practice.
  • codylee - Sunday, December 8, 2013 - link

    I do get nauseated normally... But I found a solution: hold whatever it is you are working on/with in front of you at eye level, not in your lap. That way your head is in its normal driving position, and your peripheral vision is picking up the cues that correlate with your inner ear that cause the dizziness when they don't mesh.
  • nafhan - Thursday, December 5, 2013 - link

    You can probably sleep in the care without getting nauseous. From my perspective, a commute where I can sleep is a good commute.
  • djscrew - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link

    agreed, also the potential to eliminate drunk driving accidents... Also I'm not sure what Murloc is talking about... sounds like a personal problem
  • 3DoubleD - Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - link

    I used to think this as well, but at first automated cars will require a licensed driver, capable of taking over during emergencies. The same probably goes for sleeping. This will all be tied into the issue of liability when it is your personal vehicle. When the technology is more founded and trusted, perhaps the restrictions will be lessened over time; however, where I live still has prohibition era type liquor laws... politicians aren't keen on loosening those types of laws even if it makes 100% sense.

    This will be the case for personal car use, but if Google (or someone else) starts a taxi service, then it may be possible to hop in a economically priced, automated car for the ride home. In the case of a taxi, the driver is not liable in the case of an accident nor or they responsible for driving the vehicle in an emergency. I really hope this type of transportation becomes more popular than owning a personal vehicle because of this distinction, owning a car (especially multiple cars per family) is a waste of money if it could be reasonably avoided (as it could be in urban settings with sufficient population density).

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