NEW YORK - Amazon.com Inc. is working on a way to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less - via self-guided drone.
Consider it a version of a pizza delivery boy, minus the boy.
Amazon.com said it was working on the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project in its research and development labs. But the company says it will take years to advance the technology and define insurance issues, and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations.
The project was first reported by CBS's 60 Minutes Sunday night, hours before millions of shoppers turned to their computers for Cyber Monday sales.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a prime-time interview that while the octocopters look like something out of science fiction, they someday might make sense as delivery vehicles.
Bezos said the drones can carry packages that weigh up to five pounds, which covers about 86 percent of the items Amazon delivers. The drones the company is testing have a range of about 10 miles, which Bezos noted could cover a significant portion of the population in urban areas.
While it's tough to say exactly how long it will take the project to get off the ground, Bezos told 60 Minutes that he thinks it could happen in four or five years.
"Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Fire kept us warm and cooked our food but also was used to burn down our villages," said Ray Kurzweil, a technology entrepreneur and futurist.
Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos' proposed flying machines would not need humans sitting in a distant trailer to control them. Amazon's drones would receive a set of GPS coordinates and automatically fly to them, presumably avoiding buildings, power lines, and other obstacles along the way.
Drone delivery faces several legal and technology obstacles similar to Google Inc.'s experimental driverless car. How do you design a machine that safely navigates the roads or skies without hitting anything? If an accident does occur, who is legally liable? Also, since 2007, the FAA has prohibited using drones for commercial uses.
Agriculture is seen as the most-promising commercial use of drones because of the industry's largely unpopulated, wide open spaces. Delivering Amazon packages in dense cities will be much trickier. But the savings of such a delivery system only come in large urban areas. The biggest losers could be package delivery services like the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS.
"Jeff Bezos might be the single person in the universe who could make something like this happen," consultant Darryl Jenkins said. "For what it's worth, this is a guy who's totally changed retailing."