Drone Videos Could Help Amazon Sell Prime Subscriptions

Amazon released a video on Sunday showing off its prototype delivery drone.

The video says a lot about Amazon’s plans, and also underlines how and why many major tech companies see drones as extensions of their core businesses. The short version is that Amazon wants to sell more Prime subscriptions, and faces a few very nontrivial hurdles to making a reality of drone delivery.

The Amazon video also indicates how it and other drone makers hope to beat potential regulatory issues.

The video, of course, is clearly meant to give Amazon a little marketing buzz. It was released during the holiday shopping season, which Amazon used two years ago to first promote its work in drones.

Once again, the drones have decals that say “Amazon Prime Air,” indicating they will be available to people who sign up for Prime, a $99 annual service that also offers lower shipping costs and access to some of Amazon’s online videos. Never a bad idea to market a service with a little glow from the future.

The specifications tell more. These drones purportedly fly under 400 feet and weigh something less than 55 pounds. That puts them in the size limit for small unmanned aircraft systems established by the Federal Aviation Administration in February.

The video also promises that the drone will fly with an artificial intelligence system capable of identifying and avoiding other things in the air. At 400 feet, it would be over most buildings and trees. There is no word on how long it will take to build, or how such a system will win regulatory approval.

According to the video, the drone will land at specially designated areas (a patch of yard, in the video) that appear to be cleared for its use. Amazon is at pains to show it won’t hit stuff, one of the primary fears about drones. Whether Amazon or the Prime customer would be responsible for the landing site is not clear.

Amazon knows that physical limits keep a drone of that size from carrying very heavy objects. In the video, the drone manages a pair of child’s sneakers and a dog’s chew toy, as well as packaging. But if Amazon is spending money on this, it presumably has studied how many lightweight products it sells.

The delivery time, some 30 minutes or less from ordering, is supposedly possible because the drone is capable of vertical takeoff and landing, then fast horizontal flight.

While this seems like the stuff of advanced military aircraft, there are already drone start-ups that offer such machines. In 2014 Google produced a video featuring a similar capability for a drone that delivers goods, which it hopes to offer as early as 2017.

These regulation-pleasing features follow a similar move this month by DJI, the world’s largest drone maker. DJI announced it would have technology to limit where its products can fly. How the product is used is still, in most cases, up to consumers. That makes sense, since DJI wants to sell products, but does not want liability issues.

Facebook is also active in drones of a different sort, but appears to be taking a similarly cooperative path with regulators. It is working on an 880-pound craft that will fly at 60,000 to 90,000 feet, beaming two-way fast Internet connectivity to remote areas (which presumably have a significant number of people desirous of updating their Facebook profiles).

These vehicles are meant to go above the limit of commercial airspace, and in Facebook’s vision are operated by local companies. Here also, the company may be looking for ways to reach its goal, without becoming entangled in regulatory issues.

Google is interested in high-altitude drones as well as lower-altitude delivery drones. Judging from an artist’s rendering on a LinkedIn page, its high-altitude drone is also intended to fly above commercial airspace. Google is not saying what the payload will be on its aircraft, though high-speed connectivity and aerial mapping are two likely candidates.

A Google project to provide Wi-Fi to the ground via hot air balloons, called Project Loon, also calls for flight in the stratosphere, at about 65,000 feet, or 20 kilometers above an earthbound regulator.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s