Amazon is looking to improving its online delivery order service by delivering packages to their customers with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), popularly referred to as drones.
Prime Air, Amazon's prototype UAS delivery system. Photo, courtesy of Amazon.
The Prime Air UAS project is currently in the research and development phase, and the company admits that it will take several years to develop the technology. First reported Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" program, the goal of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less, for orders placed by customers that live near Amazon.com inventory fulfillment centers.
Prime Air is a small octocopter aircraft that can pick up packages in small yellow buckets at Amazon's fulfillment centers and deliver them by air to Amazon.com customers. Amazon estimates that the aircraft can carry packages that weigh up to five pounds and have a range of about 10 miles.
Bezos said the company's hardest challenge will be demonstrating the technology to the FAA and proving that it is a safe concept, but that he also believes the project can become a reality within four or five years.
Amazon's unmanned delivery system would require its octocopters to fly beyond visual line of sight operations within metropolitan areas, an operation that will be difficult to get FAA approval, even after the agency opens the National Airspace System (NAS) to commercial UAS operations in 2015.
"I would think that package delivery, certainly when you're talking about delivering something more than a mile, that is something that the FAA is going to look very closely at and probably not allow initially," said Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
Amazon's Prime Air UAS in-flight. Photo, courtesy of Amazon.
Operating within metropolitan areas, the Prime Air system would have to understand more complex GPS coordinates than UAS operated within more open airspace environments, such as the six testing sites for commercial UAS operations that the FAA will select later this year.
Prime Air's ability to sense and avoid helicopters flying at low altitudes and other objects such as buildings is another technological barrier that Amazon will likely have to prove to the FAA in order to get the system approved for commercial use, Gielow said. UAS sense and avoid technology, such as ADS-B for UAS, is currently being developed but is unlikely to be certified and installed on aircraft for several years.
"Before the FAA allows for beyond visual line of sight operations, they're probably going to require some sort of sense and avoid technology on the aircraft to ensure the aircraft doesn't run into another aircraft or into another obstacle. That technology, although being developed, is still a few years off," said Gielow.
Regardless of the technological barriers to deploying the aircraft though, Amazon believes its Prime Air vehicles will one day "be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today."