Amazon Delivery Taking to the Skies

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By Bob Hammell

Is two-day shipping too slow for you? Not concerned with robots swooping down into your yard with a package? Well if that’s the case then you should get excited about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ announcement on CBS’s 60 Minutes last week.

In it he let the world know about a project that has been under wraps at Amazon for the last few yeards, and one that has potential to change online retail dramatically: Using unmanned drones to carry orders from distribution centers right to the customer’s doorstep in just 30 minutes.

As Amazon now exists they have dozens of distribution centers dotting throughout the United States. These highly automated facilities are amazingly quick to collect ordered items, box them up, print shipping labels, and send them out the door. However the next step isn’t quite as optimized.

Delivery right now is still reliant on the slow moving trucks of UPS and FedEx for the final step in the actual delivery. The solution in the past has been to increase the number of distribution centers, putting them closer to major markets and therefore decreasing travel time for the trucks.

This method is limited by how close distribution centers can get and how long they take to build. In the mean time it looks like Amazon has been tinkering with ideas on how to cut out these trucks all together.

According to Bezos, with this new delivery method once items are packaged up they will be gripped up by the underbelly of an awaiting octocotper stationed at the distribution center. The octocopter uses eight evenly spaced electric motors with blades to give it thrust and altitude. It flies autonomously without a remote pilot, using a suite of onboard sensors. Accelerometers and gyroscopes keep it balanced while a GPS sensor lets it know where it is in the sky.

In a perfect scenario the drone would fly to a set of coordinates denoting the customer’s location, land and drop the package, and return to the distribution center for another route.

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There is a handful of potential hang-ups here though. Drones have limited battery capacity making their payload size and range quite constrained. Bezos explained that the maximum package size would be 5 lbs or less and delivery point would need to be within 10 miles of a distribution center.

There is also the safety concern that arises when dealing with unmanned systems. Drones will need to be outfitted with some sort of collision detection to prevent them from running into eachother in air, or landing on an unsuspecting person.

The FAA currently has a ban on commercial drones and there is most likely going to be a strong regulation on them when that is lifted in the next few years.

It will be really interesting to follow this story to see if this is more than an Amazon PR stunt and really the first steps into a new age of consumerism.

So what does this mean for the amateur pilots out there? I see it as definite good news. With a huge company like Amazon putting their weight behind the initiative to make the sky more open it stands to benefit us greatly.


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