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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Amazon Drone: Stunt or service?

Is Amazon's 60 Minutes revelation serious, or just a publicity ploy?

December 5, 2013 02:46 PM ET

Computerworld - Editor's note: This column has been edited to provide the correct title of DJI Innovations' Colin Guinn.

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the town
Not a creature was stirring, not e'en UPS brown.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that Amazon Drones soon would be there.

Seriously, Jeff Bezos? Do you really think that, God and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration willing, Amazon will be delivering five-pound packages from your warehouses to customers' doors by the holiday season of 2015?

Or did you just realize what a great PR stunt it would be to have Amazon Prime Air octocopters buzzing about on a national TV news show?

I'm betting on the latter, but I'm not ruling out the former.

After all, it's not like drone technology is as near to science fiction as Google Robot is. Even leaving aside the military use of drones, drones have been around for years.

More to the point, the FAA is experimenting with commercial drones. Indeed, the FAA has already approved two commercial drones: Boeing's Insitu ScanEagle and AeroVironment's Puma. These are both surveillance drones. You can expect police departments and search-and-rescue groups to be using them soon.

With six-figure price tags, these are a long, long way from the upgraded toy octocopters that Amazon will be using. Still, both the technology and the legal framework are there for drones to start deliveries sometime in the next few years.

Now, there are questions about how practical this could be. Leaving aside the nuisance factor of drones buzzing about your neighborhood like so many mosquitoes in a swamp on a sultry summer evening, some experts just don't see the idea as being practical.

Colin Guinn, CEO of DJI-North America, the U.S. arm of DJI Innovations, which makes unmanned aerial cinematography systems for commercial and recreational use, said that Amazon Prime Air's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) might carry a five-pound payload for, at most about a 10-mile radius from Amazon's distribution centers. Since these centers tend to be out in the country, instead of in the city, the question is how many customers could Amazon really reach with this system?

I don't see that as a real problem. True, Amazon can't afford to put its huge warehouses near every major city. But the company can certainly afford to buy smaller storage space -- perhaps former Books-a-Millions and Barnes & Noble stores -- and convert them into mini-warehouse/drone airports. Then, on the Amazon website simply make Prime Air an option for only high-demand items in certain areas and, ta-da, problem solved.

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