Amazon Says Drone-Based 30-Minute Deliveries Are Coming

Amazon, by 2015, will be ready to offer 30-minute deliveries using unmanned drones called "Octocopters." It's hoping the FAA will also be ready.

The drones are coming.

Amazon says that a drone-based delivery system it's testing will one day be a reality, enabling it to deliver packages to customers' doorsteps in 30 minutes or less.

"Yes. One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today," Amazon said in a post on its site, alongside footage of a test flight and delivery.

In the video, an Amazon warehouse worker puts a single item into a small, plastic yellow tub with a two-hinge plastic lid. The box is set on a conveyor belt, which ends under the belly of a Prime Air Octocopter. The Octocopter—which has four thin metal legs and eight small, horizontally spinning helicopter blades and looks like a giant, robotic stink bug, though it's about the size of a medium-size dog—grabs the package and takes off with it through a large, open cargo door.

It then flies across a wide-open field to a very grass-surrounded house and drops the plastic box outside the back door.

The first, or perhaps even fifth or seventh, time you see a Prime Air Octocopter flying toward your home and landing at your door, it will be unnerving. Guaranteed.

"It looks like science fiction, but it's real," Amazon said in its post. "From a technology point of view, we'll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles."

Amazon will be ready to set the Octocopters in flight by 2015, and it's hoping the FAA's rules will be in place by then as well.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told CBS, in an interview, that the drones can likely carry objects that weigh up to 5 pounds—which covers 86 percent of the items Amazon currently delivers.

Dr. Darren Ansell, an expert on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) like the Octocopter, says there are still a few challenges to solve before Prime Air debuts.

"The UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people," Ansell told the BBC. "To deliver goods to people's home for example in residential areas, the UAVs must overfly densely populated towns and cities, something that today's regulations prevent."

He added that security is also an issue. "With no one to guard them, the aircraft and package could be captured and stolen."

There's also the much smaller question of the plastic tubs. Perhaps they'll come with a shipping slip enclosed, enabling customers to mail them back, by truck, leaving the U.S. Postal Service with a task?

Amazon announced Nov. 11 that it had signed a deal with the USPS, which is now delivering packages to some Amazon Prime members on Sundays. The arrangement is for now in effect in New York and Los Angeles, with additional areas to soon be added. It highlights, as do the drones, the stiff competition Amazon faces in the retail space.

eBay, like Google, now offers same-day service to some customers; this summer, it expanded the areas in which it offers the eBay Now service.

"In order for it to scale, you need a good supply chain," Slalom Consulting analyst Daniel Maycock told eWEEK. "Whoever has the best logistics really wins in this game."