Is Amazon's delivery drone all hype?

Amazon debuted this drone on an episode of "60 Minutes."

It's a bird! It’s a plane! It's… That book I just ordered on Amazon, flying toward my house in the clutches of a tiny drone. 

Or at least, that’s what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos thinks the world could be like in as little as five years -- a vision he laid out to CBS’s Charlie Rose in an interview on “60 Minutes” last night. 

Bezos showed Rose a promotional video where a working prototype of the drone -- a GPS-guided flying robot that looks a bit like a mini-barbecue with helicopter blades attached -- delivers a package to a customer’s front-lawn. He said the goal would be to get orders to customers in as little as 30 minutes. As Rose ooh-ed and ahh-ed, Bezos told him “I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not.”

Is it feasible? Maybe not. And that might not be the point.

Even if GPS guided drone deliveries become technically possible for Amazon in the next five years, there are other, perhaps even bigger, challenges to the project, says Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst for Forrester Research who specializes in technology developments in the online shopping industry. 

“I just don't know how something like this scales,” she says.

Mulpuru estimates that Amazon currently delivers at least a million packages a day, meaning “you would need a lot of drones to go back and forth between a warehouse.” And then there's the question of getting all those drones approved by the FAA to buzz over our heads all day. 

But all those hurdles may be beside the point for Amazon, Mulpuru says. A more pressing concern for the company is the very real possibility of rising service costs at the U.S. postal service, which Amazon currently depends on for much of its shipping. 

“There are probably a number of solutions that they are looking at that are probably far more viable, but far less interesting than the drone,” Mulpuru says. Trotting out a drone on national television, she says, “is really as much about Amazon establishing itself as a player in innovation along the lines of a Google or a Facebook.” 

In other words, Amazon’s drone campaign may have more to do with getting the public excited about the company delivering on innovation in general, and less to do with the specific dream of actually having a package delivered to your door with a drone. 

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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