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AirPrime

Yesterday Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, announced during a 60 Minutes segment that his company has already begun work on the future of shipping, called Amazon Prime Air. In short, orders that weigh under 5 pounds will be delivered to your door in 30 minutes, by drone.

This is definitely exciting, but exactly how much does Amazon have to accomplish between now and Jeff’s launch goal of 2015? Getting the FAA onboard will be hard enough, but what about actually getting shipments out safely, when that time finally comes? Is this even possible, or simply a publicity stunt by the e-commerce giant? They’re definitely not the first to think about doing this. Matternet has been working on bringing drone-supported shipping to areas of the world where roads aren’t common, or structurally sound enough, to handle everyday deliveries. CEO Andreas Raptopoulos talked about his vision at May’s Hardware Innovation Workshop.

If Amazon is really going for it, here are the main challenges and some of my thoughts on how Amazon will handle them:

Battery power

Probably the easiest to deal with. Amazon says they’re shooting for 30 minute deliveries, which I’m assuming means 30 minutes from take-off to landing, not order to landing. Jeff says they will deliver to within 10 miles of an Amazon Fulfillment Center, which is doable if the octocopter can go at least 20mph. The challenge here is giving them enough battery power to survive the trip to the customer and back home. Carrying that much weight at that speed for up to an hour is going to require some heavy batteries.

Weather

Although octocopters can hold their own in a decent wind, sending them out in rain or snow with wet weather protection may not be worth it. Will Amazon risk sending orders out in storms, or automatically suspend shipments until bad weather passes? A powerful weather tracker that automatically adjusts order departures definitely isn’t out of Amazon’s scope.

Theft

In order to deter theft and destruction of the drones, I imagine they’ll come equipped with at least one camera. This could be used along with GPS to locate any thieves, once the unit leaves it’s pre-planned path or loses power. Video footage will also be useful in case of a legal situation and can play a big role in the next challenge: navigation.

Navigation

Taking off and heading for a coordinate is easy, but when it comes to landing in a residential (or urban) area, pure GPS won’t be enough to keep the drone, and everyone in the surrounding area, safe. To reliably land on a customer’s doorstep, as seen in the video above, Amazon can use cameras and computer vision to make sure they aren’t land on a tree or person. But where will they land for customers that live in apartment complexes, high-rises or dormitories? Will they send out teams to “pinpoint” ideal landing locations, similar to the way Google does Street View? Personally, I’ve love to climb to the roof to receive my package – maybe I’ll even get a text when it’s a mile away so I can run up there and pretend to wave it in. That would be fun for me, and the most convenient landing spot for the drone.

Safety

The most important aspect of this puzzle. The instant one of these falls out of the sky and lands on or near someone, it’s not going to be good for Amazon. How do you think they’ll prevent this? By making sure everyone in the surrounding area is absolutely aware of the drone’s presence? Hefty safety barriers around the blades, backup power, emergency parachutes?

The FAA

The one thing Amazon has the least control over. Jeff says his 2015 goal is the earliest possible arrival of Drone-related FAA Rules and Regulations, but even that’s optimistic. If I can use this service by 2020, I’ll be happy. When do you think the first real Amazon Prime Air shipment will leave the loading dock?

Of all of these, which do you think will act as the largest roadblock in Amazon’s push for a sky-filled future in shipping? Don’t get me wrong, if there’s one company out there that’s in the best place to do this within the next few years, I think it’s Amazon. Who knows, maybe the drones will outnumber the trucks soon.

Eric Weinhoffer

Eric is a Manufacturing Engineer at Other Machine Co., where he uses large machines to make smaller machines. When not building things, Eric enjoys skiing, cycling, and climbing.


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