Amazon founder Jeff Bezos upped the ante in the delivery wars Sunday. On CBS’s 60 Minutes, Bezos revealed “Amazon Prime Air,” the company’s plan to launch a fleet of drones capable of gingerly dropping a 5-lb.-or-less package at your doorstep half an hour after you order it.
But Amazon’s move into drone delivery isn’t just out-of-the-box business thinking; it’s an ambitious volley in the race to make deliveries faster than anyone else. As Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International tells TIME, “This is a leadership issue, and [Amazon] is taking a leadership role. Once this is opened up, everybody will do it.”
Like most drone-related news that periodically sets the Internet abuzz, Amazon’s announcement is a lot of hype — by Bezos’ own admission, the system is half a decade away, at least. But it’s also a signal the Internet commerce goliath sees the writing on the wall. Near instant delivery is poised to do to online retail what Amazon has been doing to brick-and-mortar retail for a decade, and Bezos doesn’t want to see Amazon go the way of Borders bookstore.
If you live in an urban area — the kind of place near one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers from which it might someday send a drone to your doorstep — options abound to have stuff delivered to you the same day, or sooner, from area stores. As companies like eBay Now, Deliv, Postmates and TaskRabbit move in on the same-day-delivery market, Amazon’s convenience advantage gets shaved away. With their big-box locations, Target and Walmart still have a network of fulfillment centers to inspire Bezos’ envy.
Which is why Bezos announced Amazon Prime Air long before the system will be in operation. Once the technology and regulatory permission exist, what’s to stop other retailers already angling on the delivery market from getting into drone delivery? As Slate’s Matt Yglesias noted Monday, “The question is whether ‘good enough’ drones will be available before Amazon manages to put all these companies out of business. Unless Amazon itself can be the company that develops the drones.”
Which is exactly what Amazon is doing.
“It’s an innovation we’ve thought about for some time,” an Amazon spokesperson tells TIME. “We’re developing it at Amazon inside our next-generation R&D lab.”
The company is tight-lipped about what suppliers and contractors, if any, are involved in its drone development, but Fortune reports that Amazon built two of the “octocopters” featured in it’s promotional video and has several other prototypes in the lab.
Amazon’s fancy video notwithstanding, the technology to navigate a messy urban environment safely and efficiently in real-world conditions does not yet exist, at least in a form that can be affordably mass-produced.
Headline-grabbing drone-delivery systems have been around in idea form for some time (e.g., BurritoBomber, DonerCopter, etc.), but they do better at delivering stories to journalists than payloads to customers. The Federal Aviation Administration has been instructed to authorize drones for commercial purposes in the U.S., but it won’t do so until 2015 at the earliest, and many think even that timeline is unlikely.
“The FAA is way behind the curve,” MIT professor Mary Cummings told CNBC. “Drone experts are not optimistic for a 2015 deadline.”
Whether or not the FAA meets its deadline, drone delivery may be on the way.
“The big question is when is this going to happen in the cities in the U.S., but we think that it’s a long path to get there,” says Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet, a company that hopes to build drone-based distribution networks, like Amazon Prime Air, in developing countries. Drone delivery systems, Raptopoulos says, are likely to come first to rural areas outside the U.S., “where there are problems you can’t solve in any other way, so the incentive to adopt the solution is much higher. You can accept a higher risk for carrying out those missions.”