Amazon's promise of postal drones rides on a bed of hot air

Amazon takes the 30-minutes or less approach to package delivery...

Over the holiday weekend, millions watched as Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, told 60 Minutes how he plans to use drones (customized octocoptors) to deliver packages. The service, known as PrimeAir, will fly packages that are less than five pounds straignt to your door in 30-minutes or less. If all goes according to plan, the noisy little coptors will be in your neighborhood by the year 2018.

"Idea: Order a pizza. Order something to be delivered by Amazon Drone. See what gets to your house first." - @AmazonDrone

The FAA still has to signoff on the deal, but Bezos said that it will work, and it will happen. So the drones are coming, but what does that mean exactly?

While some of my peers at other news organizations are exclaiming the triumph that is PrimeAir, I'm thinking we're jumping the gun a bit. There are plenty of questions that remain unanswered. In no particular order, here are the issues and questions that come to mind, both as an Amazon customer and a journalist.

First off, unless you live within 10 miles of an Amazon shipping center, no drones for you. But even before that, there's the fact that the technology to actually power the service doesn't exist. Well, not yet at least.

But, with that said, I'm not sure such technology will be ready by 2018 either, and if it is, then it's likely going to be broken. Amazon will need to develop the drones, the firmware that runs them, the shipping software, and hire and train people to manage all of this. Not to mention the hiring of QA and software engineers, because the backbone of the operation will need to keep data protection and privacy at its core. So can we really expect all of this to be done in four years? Hardly.

The FAA isn't expected to approve drone traffic until at least 2015, but even that date seems unlikely. We have a hard enough time managing the traffic in the skies as it is, but now we need to monitor low-flying traffic too? ATC operators have it bad enough. So are we hiring more to manage drones or will we just pile on the workload to an already overworked set of employees.

When it comes to shipping, how will the package get to me? UPS and FedEx sometimes have issues finding my house, so how is an unmanned aircraft going to do any better? I have power lines and trees, how will PrimeAir address this type of problem? Will my package be left on the sidewalk, since using an octocoptor to fly to my porch is nearly impossible? What about theft?

"Amazon drones won't leave those yellow notes on your door. We're programmed to catapult your order through the window. Answer next time." - @AmazonDrone

Admittedly, I know that most of these issues will be non-issues once the service starts (if it starts). After all, I'm not going to order something and have it flown to my house and leave before it arrives. But that's me. And someone else will.

Another thought, what about property damage caused by the drones? Hardware failures that cause the drone to plummet to the ground (or worse, plummet down on top of people)? What kind of safety measures will be developed to address this?

In all, this was a brilliant publicity stunt by Bezos, but it's more about the fact that he wants to change the way Amazon delivers products. He wants to do so within a short timeframe, because he knows that Amazon is growing, and shipping services are getting more expensive, while remaining stagnant when it comes to speed and reliability.

Honestly, I think we only care about this announcement because he used the word drone.

"With technology developed by the U.S. Government, Amazon PrimeAir is able to deliver your packages fast -- before you even order them." - @AmazonDrone

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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