“I KNOW THIS LOOKS LIKE SCIENCE FICTION. IT’S NOT.”
Amazon has said that its unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] should be able to carry a 5-pound package up to 10 miles within 30 minutes. To do that, it’s going to need a lot of battery power. Octocopters on the market today are often built to carry cameras heavier than 5 pounds, but they fly only a fraction of the distance; the SteadiDrone EIHG8, for example, is meant to carry between 2 and 13 pounds, but only for a maximum of 15 minutes and less than 1 mile — the heavier the package, the worse the performance. Aerial robotics company Skycatch, which has been working on a similar drone delivery project, sees the solution as swapping batteries automatically throughout the flight while traveling in an airspace corridor dedicated to unmanned vehicles.
Missy Cummings of MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics program thinks an Amazon drone would require a big leap in technology. “Unless Jeff [Bezos] has made some kind of amazing breakthrough in battery life, which I kind of doubt, the flight time is going to continue to be a problem,” she says. Some have speculated that Amazon is building off hardware and software from Chris Anderson’s UAV company 3D Robotics, pointing to a GPS and compass module in the concept video; 3D Robotics declined to comment on this possibility. If Amazon is able to build a strong enough battery and account for variables like wind, the octocopters could fly semi-autonomously with a human supervisor, who Cummings suggests could manage up to 20 or 30 of them at a time, though the FAA’s rules are still largely unknown.
Once you build an octocopter that can make a 10-mile trip in half an hour and create a system to manage it, you start getting to the really interesting questions. How, for example, would you stop people from taking down Prime aircraft and stealing their cargo? “Instead of shoplifting, we may begin to see delivery hacking,” says Ryan Calo of the University of Washington’s tech policy lab. There’s also a more low-tech option: shooting the drones. “If you saw a drone flying fairly close overhead, maybe you could whip out a gun. Maybe you could whip out a slingshot,” says Cummings. “They would have to stay high long enough to basically either be out of sight or not in range of a weapon.”