Amazon Unveils Plan for UAV Package Delivery Service

 - December 2, 2013, 9:49 PM
Online retailer Amazon said it is developing a package delivery service using rotary-wing UAVs. (Photo: Amazon)

Online retailer Amazon said it is developing a delivery system that will use UAVs to fly packages to customers. The Seattle-based company said its goal is to deliver a package within 30 minutes of dispatching an aircraft from a fulfillment center.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed plans for the “Prime Air” delivery service during an interview with the CBS news program “60 Minutes,” which aired on December 1. He said the delivery system is a research and development project that is four or five years away from becoming reality.

The company’s website features a brief video showing a small box being placed in a plastic container that snaps shut. The container moves by roller conveyer to a waiting rotary-wing “octocopter” with its rotors turning. A clamp mechanism on the aircraft’s belly grabs the container; the UAV then lifts off through an open warehouse door. The website states that the system will be ready for commercial operation as soon as 2015, the date Congress has specified for the wider introduction of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System.

In July, the Federal Aviation Administration granted restricted-category type certifications for the Insitu ScanEagle and AeroVironment Puma AE UAVs, for the first time allowing operators to use unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes. However, those certifications limit the operations to remote, Arctic airspace. Wider commercial use of UAVs remains prohibited.

During the 60 Minutes interview, Bezos said Amazon’s UAV can carry packages weighing up to five pounds, covering 86 percent of the items the company delivers. The aircraft would fly to programmed GPS coordinates within a 10-mile radius of a fulfillment center. “The hard part here is putting in all the redundancy, all the reliability, all the systems you need to say, ‘Look, this thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighborhood,’” Bezos said, according to a transcript of the interview.

“Amazon’s plans to launch a ‘Prime Air’ delivery system demonstrate the promise of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS),” the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) stated following the interview, which attracted widespread media coverage. “It underscores how this innovative technology will transform the way industries operate and the importance of keeping UAS integration on track.”

AUVSI, the main trade organization representing the unmanned systems and robotics industry, released a study in March forecasting that the UAS industry will generate $82 billion in economic activity in the first decade after unmanned aircraft enter the U.S. airspace system.