The 4 reasons why Amazon won’t be shipping by drone anytime soon

By David Axe
December 2, 2013

This weekend Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos told 60 Minutes that he wants small unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — to speed packages to online shoppers as early as 2017, cutting delivery times to as quick as 30 minutes.

It’s a bold, imaginative plan — one that could propel a host of technological and legal advancements.

It’s also really, really difficult to pull off. What follows are just four of the reasons Bezos’ Amazon delivery-drones might not get off the ground.

1)  Drone delivery flights are illegal, at present. Among other prohibitions, the Federal Aviation Administration bans drone flights over 400 feet altitude and near airports and populated areas. Bezos’ plan is for the robots to take off from fulfillment centers near big cities. They might be able to stay below 400 feet and avoid airports. But exactly how can a drone deliver a package to a populated area without flying over … a populated area?

More important, the FAA currently bans all commercial uses of drones. Simply stated, you’re not allowed to make money off them — which is exactly what Bezos aims to do.

The good news for Amazon is that Congress has required the FAA to loosen its drone restrictions. The agency has said it will roll out new rules in mid-2014. “That will really be first time anyone can fly an unmanned aerial system for hire,” says Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone trade group.

“But looser laws are only a first step,” Gielow adds. “The regulations that govern operator certification, airframer certification, how maintenance is done, how the communications links work and all that stuff all need to be worked out.”

2) Drones are expensive. Bezos showed 60 Minutes some prototype delivery drones. They’re “octocopters,” named for their eight helicopter-like rotors. Octocopters and their four-rotor cousins called “quadcopters” are among the most popular unmanned vehicles in use among universities, corporate laboratories and non-military government agencies.

But they’re not cheap. A high-performance drone — one capable of long-range flight at high speed while also carrying several pounds worth of packages — can set you back $50,000. Middling models are around $3,000. Budget drones such as the $300 AR Parrot are notoriously flimsy and unreliable — and lack the horsepower to haul more than a few ounces of payload.

Based on my rough calculations, a FedEx driver and his truck cost $40,000 a year to acquire and operate — including the truck’s purchase price spread over a decade of use. A typical driver can deliver 75 packages a day. It would take at least six drones costing $300,000 to do the same amount of work, assuming the robots always work perfectly. The drones would have to fly 12 hour-long, round-trip deliveries five days a week for eight years in order to be even a dollar cheaper than a human driver.

Eight years is a long time for a tiny, complex machine prone to crashes and malfunctions. The bottom line is that people are probably cheaper.

3) Drones are dumb. People can read maps, follow directions, navigate lawns and foot paths, step over shrubs, squeeze onto cluttered porches, read house numbers and ring doorbells to let customers know their packages have arrived.

By contrast, even the most sophisticated flying robots lack the ability to read numbers and dodge obstacles such as wires and birds. There’s no way they can ring your doorbell. The best today’s octocopters can manage is to follow GPS coordinates to the approximate location of your house, accurate to within a few yards. But the machine will have no way of knowing where on your house the front door is — to say nothing of finding the doorbell.

“In order to do things useful for people, the robot has to know its environment,” said Stefanie Tellex, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tellex and other researchers are hard at work on smarter drones. By equipping the robots with laser sensors and large databases of known objects, they hope drones can quickly deduce the layouts of new buildings and landscapes and maybe pinpoint the door.

But the technology is not very far advanced — and might not even be ready in the five years before Bezos wants to launch drone delivery.

4) People distrust drones. Many of the world’s most sophisticated flying robots are in the military’s possession. They fly high over foreign battlefields, spying on suspected insurgents and terrorists and even attacking them with missiles and bombs. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security is a major drone user.

The use of flying robots in warfare and surveillance has instilled a deep suspicion of drones in most people. This year the small town of Deer Trail, Colorado, even tried to make it legal for residents to shoot down any drone they saw overhead — a move that elicited a stern rebuke from the FAA.

But the good people of Deer Trail aren’t entirely off base. The National Security Agency is known to collect data on Americans’ Internet activity and phone conversations, either by cooperating with telecommunications companies or by secretly slipping spy software into private and corporate networks.

Could federal agencies resist the temptation to hijack Amazon’s fleet of drones as they zip back and forth over much of the American population? And do people want 30-minute delivery so badly that they’re willing to risk it?

 

VIDEO: An Amazon PrimeAir drone flies in this television footage released to Reuters on December 2, 2013. REUTERS/Amazon.com/Handout via Reuters

 

11 comments

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The author of this article literally has no idea what he is talking about.

Signed, a UAV designer.

Posted by afoose | Report as abusive

Really? That’s all you could come up with? Nothing a few years and a few lobbyist can’t fix.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Oh come now…

1. Yes they are illegal now, but self driving cars are coming our way and these may, in a few years, also be made legal. Times do change, or haven’t you noticed?

2. Yes they are more expensive, so you charge more. Thirty minute delivery would be available in selected markets at premium.

3. Yes GPS based drones are Dumb and Amazon may need to offer a ‘beacon’ device (at a price) for those who want to use this service. Such a device would allow the unit to hone in to the correct location. This is probably essential if they hope to deliver to highrise or multi-tennant buildings. They will also need to have a near object avoidance system, which they have probably already included in the design. Failing to include that would be a show stopper at the FAA.

4. People distrust many things but we eventually get used to them after having around after a while. This argument is the silliest.

Posted by MikeLieberman | Report as abusive

So the drones eventually break even with the delivery van? I just figured that since air transport is usually the least efficient way to move stuff around, that the economics would always favor the delivery van.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

Somebody should do a study on how much of an influence huge personal wealth has, on driving a person towards insanity. There seems to be a pretty strong correlation.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

I’ll back Jeff Bezos over the author of this piece. The so-called problems are already soluble even with current technology, and of course drones, like everything else electronic, will double in ability and half in price every year or so. So bring ‘em on Jeff!!

Posted by GerryShaw | Report as abusive

Your caveat #3 is the killer. How does a drone deliver a package to a 2nd story outdoor apartment, or an indoor apartment? How does a drone get a signature? How does a drone deliver a package securely? What does the drone do when its address is clearly wrong? When in doubt, how does the drone confirm the address?

This is not just nuts; this is supernuts.

Posted by Randcraw | Report as abusive

5.)
people own shotguns, are bored alot, and hate things flying over their house at 3 am.

Posted by bombastinator | Report as abusive

Calm down. It was a PR stunt. A rather brilliant one as well. Mentioned in a 60 minute interview the day before cyber monday. An issue so hot that it was able to get every news organization and blogger talking about it. Brilliant one Bezo. Brilliant.

I do suspect Bezo is partially serious about his hopes for drone delivery, but as he suggested in the 60 minute interview, it’s a distance away..10-15 years away. So he’s not being unrealistic. He doesn’t expect it tomorrow or a month or a year from now. It does add pressure to the FAA to speed up rules change, as others like Fedex, UPS, and USPS consider their response to such competition. These wishes for such a program made public the day before cyber Monday to lead to such widespread coverage…brilliant.

Posted by Proxyariesman | Report as abusive

to add to the previous comments, about how rediculous this article is.

1. Illegal sure, but that changes next year. What a coincidence, that he says they’ll start in 2014. Why, thats also the year the law expires saying you can’t do it.
2. Yes its more expensive, and its more convient. Thats why I BILL THE CLIENT MORE. Up at 3 am, want to finish watching the walking dead dvd set? Don’t worry, the drone doesn’t mind working through the night. It’ll cost an extra 9.99 though.
3. You are so worried about the address. If you think it through, I guarantee that it won’t deliver to your adderess. It will deliver to your iphone or android’s GPS coordinates (when you download and run the likely forthcoming app), and text you when its

Posted by afhjkasd | Report as abusive

Jeff ought to stop playing with R/C toys and start managing a business that treats it’s vendors in a crude and rude manner because Amazon never makes a mistake. I gladly await their competition.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive