Amazon.com is testing delivering packages using drones, CEO Jeff Bezos said on the CBS TV news show 60 Minutes Sunday.
The idea would be to deliver packages as quickly as possible using the small, unmanned aircraft, through a service the company is calling Prime Air, the CEO said. Bezos played a demo video on 60 Minutes that showed how the aircraft, also known as octocopters, will pick up packages in small yellow buckets at Amazon's fulfillment centers and fly through the air to deliver items to customers after they hit the buy button online at Amazon.com.
The goal of the new delivery system is to get packages into customers' hands in 30 minutes or less, the world's largest Internet retailer said.
Putting Prime Air into commercial use will take "some number of years" as Amazon develops the technology further and waits for the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with rules and regulations, the company added.
Bezos told 60 Minutes that the service could be up and running in as few as four years - although he noted that he is an optimist when it comes to such things. "One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today," the company said.
This is the latest futuristic effort by Bezos, who was an e-commerce pioneer in the 1990s and more recently popularized the e-reader - while pursuing personal projects such as private spaceflight and a 10,000-year clock built inside a mountain.
Drones have mostly been used by the U.S. military to shoot missiles at enemy combatants in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the cost of these unmanned aircraft has dropped precipitously in recent years, making them more accessible to commercial users, such as companies, small businesses and entrepreneurs.
However, the FAA currently limits the use of drones in the U.S. to public entities such as police forces and hobbyists, meaning the devices cannot be used in return for payment. The regulator said recently that it plans to have regulations governing commercial use in place by 2015.
"The FAA would not let Amazon do this now," said Ryan Calo, an expert on robotics, privacy and the law at the University of Washington. "But this is precisely the type of application that Congress had in mind when it told the FAA in 2012 to come up with rules for commercial unmanned aircraft."
Amazon will be able to petition the FAA to show them how its drone delivery technology works and the company can also apply to test its drones to make sure they are air worthy,he added.
"Amazon will not be able to darken the skies of Seattle with drones. They will need a plan for safety," Calo said. "But I see no reason why this application won't fly."
If drone delivery takes off, it could be a threat to FedEx and UPS, which Amazon uses for a lot of its deliveries now. Indeed, FedEx founder Fred Smith told Wired magazine in 2009 that the company wanted to switch their fleet to drones as soon as possible but that it had to wait for the FAA to regulate such activity. "We'll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place," Amazon said Sunday. "Safety will be our top priority, and our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards."