How long before Amazon launches its fleet of drones?

Jeff Wilke, CEO consumer worldwide for Amazon, with latest Prime Air drone design
Jun 07, 2019
George Anderson

When Jeff Bezos told “60 Minutes” in 2013 of’s intent to use drones — known as octocopters — to deliver packages under five pounds to the homes of customers, there was no shortage of opinions on the brilliance or lunacy of the plan.

In the years since the CBS broadcast, Amazon and others such as 7-Eleven and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, have run tests to determine the practicality of drone-based deliveries. Doubts have remained, however, about using drones for home deliveries, even among believers in the technology’s utility.

Perhaps, it has been reasoned, drones make sense for the delivery of medicine in rural areas, for example, but may present a multitude of logistical, environmental and safety challenges if deployed in large numbers over areas with greater population density. So far, the questions have been primarily academic as no widespread test of the technology in the U.S. has been performed.

Alphabet appears to be the furthest ahead at this point. CNBC reported in April that the company’s Wing program was the first to receive certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), allowing deliveries from local businesses to American households.

Earlier this week, Amazon reminded the press and investors that it has not given up on Mr. Bezos’ drone ambitions announced five-and-a-half years ago. At the company’s Re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, Jeff Wilke, CEO consumer worldwide for Amazon, announced a new Prime Air delivery hybrid drone that functions as part helicopter and part plane.

The new drone uses depth and thermal cameras as well as sonar to safely navigate around a wide variety of potential hazards such as power lines, pets in yards, etc. The drones, Amazon claims, will be able to fly up to 15 miles and make deliveries to customers in under 30 minutes. The five-pound limit, first discussed by Mr. Bezos way back when, is still in place. Amazon says that the weight limit accommodates between 75 and 90 percent of the orders it ships.

Mr. Wilke did not discuss the timing for the launch, except to say that it would be ready to go in a matter of months. Amazon, according to a report by The Verge, seems confident that its use of currently FAA approved materials in building the drone will help it receive speedy approval from the agency.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think Alphabet, Amazon and others will be operating robust drone delivery programs in the next several years? Does early mover status have any significance when it comes to the likelihood of success for drone delivery services?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"A single drone making a home delivery is a novelty and poses limited risk. Having the air full of delivery drones poses several issues. "
"Honestly, I think it’s a dumb use of technology. Humans can use the jobs in any case, and there’s a lot less risk."
"Drone delivery is on a short list of areas where we could innovate, but we have to fix the fundamental infrastructure first. "

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13 Comments on "How long before Amazon launches its fleet of drones?"

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Mark Ryski

Notwithstanding the FAA approval, I still believe drone delivery at scale is many years away. I think it’s absolutely sensible for companies like Alphabet and Amazon to be experimenting with drone delivery and the time/effort they’re investing now will pay off in the future, however, it’s still uncertain when that future will be. FAA approval is an important step, but given how weak government oversight actually is – regardless of whether it’s the EPA, FDA or the FAA – I still see many challenges with drone delivery. It will come, but not for many years to come.

Paula Rosenblum

In a word, no. I know there are parts of the U.S. where citizens are allowed to shoot drones down, and given that there are no real “highways” for drones to stick to, too many things can go wrong.

Plus, honestly, I think it’s a dumb use of technology. Humans can use the jobs in any case, and there’s a lot less risk.

Bob Phibbs

NYC shot down HQ2, I’m sure they and most other cities will shoot this down as well. The Amazon PR machine marches on.

Steve Montgomery

The short answer is no. A single drone making a home delivery is a novelty and poses limited risk. Having the air full of delivery drones poses several issues. It increases the likelihood that they have some sort of incident ranging from mechanical issues to trying to avoid crashing into each other or crashing into a building, a roofer, a hobbyist’s drone or another kind of drone. Technology in the future will eliminate or greatly reduce the likelihood of this, but not in the near term.

Brandon Rael

Drone delivery is on a short list of areas where we could innovate, but we have to fix the fundamental infrastructure first. Amazon and Jeff Bezos have stirred up the drone delivery publicity machine, and it’s only a matter of time before these scale up. However, before we go to the next frontier, we have to consider that our highways, roads, and mass transit infrastructure are in dire need of repair, renovations, or even replacement. Our highways are jammed with relentless traffic, especially in larger cosmopolitan cities. Especially now that Walmart, Amazon, and other retailers’ delivery fleets are using the same roads as FedEx, UPS etc.

The race to mitigate the last mile of delivery is out there to be won by Amazon, Google/Alphabet, Walmart, etc., and drone delivery will certainly help in that regard. Yet we are a long way away from this scaling up as there are FAA approval and safety considerations that need to be worked out. We are still struggling with converting to electric cars and sustainable energy.

Ryan Mathews

The short answer is no, at least not “… in the next several years.” Moving to full drone force adoption is going to involve a nightmare of litigation and regulation and that’s assuming there are NO problems such as drones colliding, or failing and falling out of the sky and causing a car accident or other property damage, etc. But that said I do believe there is such a thing as prime mover advantage here. If I were Amazon, or any of these companies, I would keep exploring the technologies AND the potential regulatory and cultural barriers involved in drone and other forms of automated delivery. What I wouldn’t be doing is laying down a bet that we will see them used in 2020 or 2021.

Cynthia Holcomb

Sacrificing quality of life in one’s home or yard so Amazon can deliver a neighbor’s deodorant is simply insane. As our cities become more densely populated, our skies become Amazon and Alphabet highways? If the FAA approves this (outside of the big backlash which will occur when everyday people realized how compromised they have become) we, all of us, will be prisoners tortured by the incessant whirling/buzzing noise of drone pollution and drone dodging courtesy of Amazon and Alphabet! Shut the curtains so the Amazon drone can’t peek into your home. Whoops, forgot Alexa is already listening. Just like Facebook sells our private information for free, now Amazon and Alphabet get to use the 30 feet above our heads for free. As you can read, I have a strong opinion on this matter! Thanks for listening, good therapy.

Ken Wyker

It’s hard not to see the idea of drone delivery as a very cool use of technology. I’m just not sure it is meeting a demonstrated need. My sense is that the focus on drone delivery is more about owning the positioning of being the fastest shipper of goods — “we even have drones!”

I do have a question about delivery distance. The article says that the drones can fly 15 miles. Is that round trip, meaning they can deliver up to 7.5 miles away? Or can they deliver to customers 15 miles away?

Either way, it seems like a similar delivery speed of within 30 minutes could be achieved through dedicated drivers or an Uber-style service with an added bonus that much larger packages can be delivered. Not high-tech, but effective.

Ricardo Belmar

There are a large number of infrastructure questions that remain before drone delivery can be viable outside of very sparsely populated rural areas and emergency-driven use cases. Just imagine the air traffic control issues we’re implying here from competing drone delivery providers (Amazon, Alphabet, FedEx, UPS, etc.). Is the FAA going to introduce a new breed of air traffic controller to police our low-level skies at 30 to 100 feet above our heads? I suspect more short-range examples (such as we heard UPS was evaluating some time ago where the drones launch from UPS trucks to make the final delivery step to our homes) is a more realistic use case for the near term. We are many years away from full-blown drone delivery until these types of issues are resolved.

Paco Underhill

How much of Brooklyn much less East St. Louis is drone-accessible? Maybe deliveries to gated communities, or into exurbia – but please get real. We need a better system that takes into account the carbon footprint of our appetite for goods.

Ryan Mathews

Paco — Do you think people in gated communities would really tolerate a fleet of drones violating their overly-paid for airspace?

Actually I agree with you, but I can’t shake the image of a conga line of drones waiting to check in at a guardhouse.

Mohamed Amer

Ten years from now we will be receiving regular deliveries to our homes via multiple means including drones. The latter will not be flying over crowded streets and avenues of Manhattan but more friendlier suburban skies. There’s an even bigger story here.

Think of drone deliveries as the battle ground for, and the intersection of, multiple advanced technologies that can be further applied in future consumer settings; especially when layered with advanced artificial intelligence capabilities at the edge. The drone delivery race is much bigger than just last-mile logistics (for which it will be an option), it’s about pushing the innovation envelope to create yet-to-be-defined consumer needs and in effect introducing new product and experiential categories that capture our imagination and reset the competitive bar.

Cate Trotter

I think we’re quite a way off seeing drones becoming a viable, and regular, delivery options. There’s a myriad of things to iron out (approvals, regulations, logistics of coordinating multiple drones — the list goes on) and it’s hard to see that being figured out quickly. I can understand why Amazon and the like are still pursuing the idea, but the reality of drone deliveries is definitely one for the future (if at all).

"A single drone making a home delivery is a novelty and poses limited risk. Having the air full of delivery drones poses several issues. "
"Honestly, I think it’s a dumb use of technology. Humans can use the jobs in any case, and there’s a lot less risk."
"Drone delivery is on a short list of areas where we could innovate, but we have to fix the fundamental infrastructure first. "

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