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Marketplace Tech

Amazon drones and the future of retail

Jeff Tyler Dec 2, 2013
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Thirty minute delivers aren’t just for pizza companies anymore. Amazon.com plans to deliver goods in about the same time. How could the Internet retailer possibly ship stuff so quickly? Drones.

Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos plans to use small un-manned drones to deliver orders through a service called Prime Air.

“It looks like science fiction, but it’s real,” says Amazon spokesperson Mary Osako. “One day, we think seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.”

But first, Amazon needs the government to establish rules so drones don’t crash into planes and other stuff.

The Federal Aviation Administration is working on regulations, but those are still years away.

Ryan Calo is an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington. He wonders if Jeff Bezos’ plan for drones will fall inside the existing law.

“It seems like he’s planning autonomous delivery, where no human being is necessarily, in the loop. That won’t fly, so to speak, under the current FAA’s understanding,” says Calo.

But influential corporations have a long history of working with the government on regulations. And Amazon is no exception.

Calo says, “Amazon seems like it’s already been in touch with the FAA. And I think it will work with the FAA to explain what it needs to do and how it means to do it.”

So Amazon could help craft the rules for future drone commerce. And that future may not be so far away.

“Unmanned aircraft will be the next big wave in all of aviation,” says Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International – a trade association for the drone industry.

Unmanned aircraft systems are already a $14 Billion industry worldwide. But that’s mostly for military applications. Drones for the private sector could be huge.

Other parcel companies are also considering the use of unmanned aircraft.

“Fed Ex said a couple of years ago that they would like to have all of their pilots on their big cargo airplanes be on the ground, says Geilow. “What you could be seeing are some very long transatlantic or transcontinental flights that could be conducted with multiple crews on the ground, which would be a big cost savings for some of those package delivery carriers.”

Are Amazon and FedEx exceptions? Calo thinks not.

“I think a large, sophisticated delivery company that wasn’t looking at what robotics has to offer is not doing its job. And so I’d be surprised if those big carriers weren’t thinking about this already.”

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