Amazon's Hybrid Drone: Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less

With a blog post and a video clip featuring former Top Gear (and future Amazon Instant Video) host Jeremy Clarkson, Amazon yesterday (Nov. 29) released new details about its drone-based delivery program, called Prime Air. Amazon appears to have created a large, nine-propeller drone to carry purchases to customers in 30 minutes or less, presumably for Amazon Prime members.

Amazon Prime Air

Amazon says its new 55-pound drone is designed to fly at 55 mph at 400 feet for up to 15 miles. The drone features what the company calls "sense-and-avoid technology," which will prevent the drone from running into things such as hot-air balloons, power lines or birds, or dive-bombing people on the ground. When the drone arrives at its destination, according to the video, it scans the ground for a landing area and for any obstacles (the family dog, kid mowing the lawn, crazy man with a shotgun) before descending to release the package.

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Amazon says it is creating a family of drones using different designs to work in a variety of environments. The company claims it is testing Prime Air development centers in the United States, United Kingdon and Israel. In terms of safety, Amazon says it believes "airspace is safest when small drones are separated from most manned aircraft traffic."

Not content just to propose the use of drones for delivering packages (as the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, Walmart and Google have also done), Amazon wants to advocate for specific, industry-wide standards. The company proposes there be four classifications of drones, based on the sophistication of the equipment (basic, good, better and best).

The Basic level would include radio-controlled drones flown low in low-risk, rural environments. The Prime Air drones, flown in urban environments, would fit in the Best class. These would require geospatial data processing for known hazards, online flight management, solid Internet connection, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and sense-and-avoid technology.

The e-tail giant's drones will be operated by a combination of "real-time planning and on-board vehicle automation." It admits the drone's programming will have to be able to adapt to changes in weather and other emergencies. 

You can put your fears of Skynet becoming self-aware on hold, for now. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently bans unlicensed, commercial drone operations, which it calls "parcelcopters." But the agency is considering changing the rules to permit the use of the technology -- and in March granted Amazon approval to fly Prime Air drones for research.

There is no official timeline on when the FAA will make a decision on regulations of drones, but if it becomes a reality, it's possible that any company sending deliveries will need approval from the people who live in the flight path.

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