Drone technology finally delivers

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By Ashton Herrmann, Reporter, @AshtonHerrmann

Because of their increasingly frequent use in military operations, unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e. drones) carry a heavy stigma. There’s something unnerving about the thought that at any moment an invisible robot might rain death upon you from above. However, rather than indulging robot Armageddon fantasies, could drones be engineered to serve humanity and improve everyday life? The Octocopters of Amazon’s Prime Air service, announced December 1st, are intended to do just that.

Since it was founded in 1994, Amazon.com has evolved beyond the company’s humble beginnings as “Earth’s biggest book store” to the world’s most ubiquitous online retailer.  The Internet superstore now has separate websites in over a dozen countries and sells everything from groceries to consumer electronics. According to Alexa Internet, Inc. (a subsidiary of Amazon.com), Amazon is the 8th most visited website on the Internet today.

Aiming to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” Amazon has built a legendary reputation upon its customer service and its speed of delivery. Shoppers who pay an annual fee gain access to free two-day shipping on all orders, but the company seems to believe that two days simply isn’t fast enough. Imagine a future where only 30 minutes after submitting an order for a sweet new iPad Air it is delivered right to your door by a flying robot.

It sounds like science fiction, but Amazon assures us that it’s not. Amazon Prime Air will be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary FAA regulations are in place and more testing and development is done. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos even speculates that “one day, spotting Prime Air drones in the sky will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.”

A video posted on Amazon’s official YouTube channel demonstrates just how Amazon Prime Air might work. In the video, a warehouse worker loads an ordered package into a yellow plastic container emblazoned with the familiar Amazon logo. The container is then placed onto a conveyer belt, directing it to a device which attaches the order to the octocopter- barely larger than a remote-controlled helicopter. The drone is then shown placing its payload gently outside the customer’s doorstep before it floats away.

Internet skeptics are already labeling the service impractical at best and dangerous at worst, with many concerned about the security of their future deliveries—what’s to stop someone from shooting one of these things out of the sky? The Octocopter also has a small carrying capacity at a maximum of five pounds. Others are concerned about the presumed danger that drones, even unarmed ones, inherently pose to people.

Amazon assures its critics that “safety will be the top priority, and the vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards.” We’ll have to wait until Amazon cuts through the bureaucratic red tape to see if any of the raised concerns ring true. Amazon Prime Air representatives are hoping to launch the service as early as 2015. Pricing for Prime Air has yet to be announced.