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Amazon Revisits Prime Air Delivery By Drone

In a video released on Sunday, Jeremy Clarkson describes how Amazon Prime Air will offer deliveries in 30 minutes or less. Eventually.
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Amazon reprised its drone delivery evangelism to show shoppers how future orders may arrive by air. The company released its latest video, showing its Amazon Prime Air drone delivery service, on the eve of Cyber Monday, a sales event invented by marketers to promote online shopping back before the idea had really taken hold.

In the company's latest video, Jeremy Clarkson, former co-host of Top Gear, revisits Amazon's aspirations. He describes a scenario in which a family, pressed for time, orders soccer shoes for a daughter to replace a shoe destroyed by the family dog.

"And in a location not too far away, a miracle of modern technology is dispatched," intones Clarkson. "It's an Amazon drone."

Amazon's initial foray into drone demonstrations occurred two years ago, through a segment on the television news show 60 Minutes. At the time, CEO Jeff Bezos told correspondent Charlie Rose that the greatest challenge would be convincing the Federal Aviation Administration that drones could make deliveries safely. "I don't want anyone to think that this is just around the corner," said Bezos. "This is years of additional work from this point."

As 2015 winds down, there's still more work to do. The FAA does not presently allow drones to make deliveries, though it has been granting exemptions to companies such as Amazon, industry groups, and  other organizations as a way to test the technology. In Virginia over the summer, for example, the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and Virginia Tech demonstrated that drones can be used to deliver medicine to a rural clinic.

The FAA also has formed a task force with more than two dozen firms interested in making deliveries by air. Some of these companies are working with NASA to develop its Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management system, which is expected eventually to provide air traffic control functions for commercial drones operating in public airspace.

At the moment, a major impediment is the FAA's requirement that commercial drones have a licensed human pilot who maintains a line of sight to the drone. The agency this year has relaxed that requirement and made exceptions as it works on finalizing its proposed rules in 2016. But until its requirements change, commercial drone deliveries won't offer the labor savings made possible by automation.

[Read Google Files FAA Paperwork Detailing Its Drone Plans.]

That's the vision Amazon presents in its videos -- customer orders travel along conveyor belts to waiting drones, where they're loaded and launched automatically. Amazon does not want to pay a licensed pilot to watch over every drone it dispatches -- in the parlance of Silicon Valley, that doesn't scale. In a policy paper on the subject, Amazon describes drones with autopilot capabilities and automated collision avoidance systems, operating under airspace rules that permit "vehicle-to-operator ratios greater than 1:1."

Amazon Prime Air aims to deliver goods in 30 minutes or less, a goal already achieved on public roads by Domino's Pizza more often than not. While Prime Air may make sense for compact, lightweight goods that are needed immediately by customers with space for drones to land, it's unlikely to replace traditional delivery systems in densely populated urban environments, or to deter initiatives like Uber Rush that seek to improve ground-based delivery.

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