The idea of drones has existed almost as long as the history of aviation itself, existing in one form or another since around 1911. During World War I the Navy experimented with using unmanned Curtiss biplanes rigged with high explosives to engage enemies remotely, without jeopardizing lives. However, this early experiment in drone technology was largely a failure, as the guidance systems upon which the biplanes relied were unreliable at best. By the 1950s, the drone concept had largely been abandoned in favor of the first guided cruise missiles, but it wasn't until the 1980s that the prototypical forebears of today's drones finally saw liftoff, under the auspices of the US Air Force.
Today, drones appear in the news on a daily basis both as vehicles for combat and their civilian applications. These tiny unmanned aircraft are routinely employed to obtain video footage, as in a recent music video featuring Beyonce Knowles on a roller coaster. They are used by civilian enthusiasts, considered by police forces for law enforcement surveillance and for military reconnaissance and remote combat missions. Because of the recent development of the technology for civilian applications and the questions of controlling drones and their controllers to prevent breaches of privacy and federal law, drones are a hotly contested part of the modern American landscape.
Into the midst of this debate stepped Amazon.com. In late 2013, the company debuted its prototype delivery drone for Amazon Prime customers, touting the new drone as a faster and more reliable private solution to getting items to customers quicker while avoiding shipping delays. The program, Amazon Prime Air, is intended to deliver packages weighing up to 5 lbs, which according to a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2014 "cover[s] 86% of products sold on Amazon." The drones, dubbed "octocopters" for their eight-rotor design, have an airspeed of 50mph and a range of about 10 miles in their current configuration.
The octocopters would pick up ordered items in bright yellow plastic containers. Then the drones would pass through a high speed checkweigher to confirm the ordered weight versus the actual tare, or weight excluding the container, of the item aboard the drone. The drones would then be deployed to the final destination, within ten miles of the shipping center, make the delivery and return to base for charging, refueling and another run. Other commercial interests have observed Amazon's plans with interest, speculating about the future of delivering everything from pizza and other food items to medication from a local pharmacy.
However, new legislation proposed by the FAA in February 2015 sharply limits the usages of drones for commercial purposes. Amazon has moved much of its research and development of drones overseas, because of regulatory snarls in permitting outdoor and practical field trials for the octocopters and has threatened repeatedly to shut down the Amazon Prime Air program in the US indefinitely if the FAA will not loosen restrictions on drone operations by private companies.
Among the restrictions proposed by the FAA are:
- No nighttime operations
- Restricted operation within heavily populated areas
- No operations where the drone is out of the operator's line of sight
- Restricted operations within a set radius of an airfield or airport
Opponents say these restrictions would reduce the usefulness and viability of the octocopters too sharply to make them a viable part of the company's business model. However, those who favor the proposed legislation say that these rules only make sense to balance public safety and privacy considerations against the convenience and speed drones offer in the delivery field. These concerns are not limited to the US, as the UK, where Amazon is field-testing the drones currently, has also expressed reservations in the same vein as the FAA.
In short, do not expect an Amazon Air Prime delivery at your door anytime soon.