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Can Amazon Prime Drones Weather the Storm?

By Eric Zerkel
Published: December 3, 2013

Black Friday may be a holiday tradition, but shopping in-person is so passé nowadays. More Americans than ever are ditching long lines and crowds in favor of the convenience and comfort of online shopping, Forbes reports.

In fact, the web analytics company ComScore anticipates that sales on Cyber Monday — the biggest online shopping day of the year — will increase by more than 20 percent to around $2 billion this year. 

But one pitfall of ecommerce continues to plague online shoppers: shipping. Even with next-day-deliveries the instant gratification of an in-person purchase is hard to replicate. Couple that with sagging holiday delivery times, and consumers can be hung out to dry for weeks. 

All of that may change though. In a recent interview with CBS's 60 Minutes, online retail giant Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos revealed that the company intends to utilize a fleet of unmanned drones to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less, according to the Associated Press.

The drone, dubbed the "octocopter" for its eight propellers, could deliver packages weighing up to five pounds to your door within a 10 mile radius of any Amazon warehouse using GPS coordinates. If five pounds seems limiting, consider this: According to the Associated Press, packages weighing five pounds or less encompass 86 percent of all of Amazon's deliveries. As for network coverage, Bloomberg reports that Amazon currently has 89 operational warehouses throughout the country, with plans to open seven additional facilities in the coming year. 

Does all that seem too good to be true? It just might be. Bezos told 60 Minutes that the program, known internally as "Prime Air," could be ready to launch in four to five years pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, but FAA approval may be a huge hurdle for implementing the service. Currently, the FAA prohibits commercial drone usage, the Associated Press reports. 

Even though recent moves by Congress may help incorporate commercial drones into American skies by 2015, plans face steep practical concerns. 

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How would the drones avoid collisions, and if collisions occur, who's responsible for the resulting damages? Would drones be able to deliver in no-fly zones like the ones found in many major metropolitan areas? And how would drones fair in adverse weather conditions?

"Weather will pose an interesting challenge for Amazon's drones," said weather.com meteorologist Jon Erdman. "The craft would have to be resistant to ice buildup, and presumably would not fly in thunderstorms, heavy rain or snow. Furthermore, strong winds even on an otherwise clear day would lash the small craft."

Even if the drone survives severe weather, concerns linger for purchases. How would Amazon shield purchases from inclement weather mid-flight?

"The small bucket carrying the package would have to be airtight, to avoid getting soaked," said Erdman. "Temperature sensitive packages, particularly in the winter months, would likely be unable to fly, unless the bucket is temperature controlled."

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Drones are no stranger to the field of meteorology. Amazon could do well to answer weather concerns by referencing the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. In September, NASA launched the Global Hawk into Tropical Storm Gabrielle in an effort to help subsidize information provided by the manned flights of the Hurricane Hunters. The Global Hawk can fly in higher altitudes in inclement weather for longer periods of time than traditional aircraft, providing a vital resource for future forecasting efforts during tropical seasons. 

However, the Global Hawk utilizes military technology, designed with a much different purpose than Amazon's consumer-oriented ocotocopter. 

Bezos remained mum on the technological aspects of the drone, meaning the answers to these questions could be years away. 

"I don't want anybody to think this is just around the corner," Bezos told 60 Minutes. "There's years of additional work from this point."

MORE: Building For the Future: The 2013 World Architecture Festival

Auckland Art Gallery - New Zealand

Auckland Art Gallery - New Zealand

The Aukland Art Gallery in New Zealand was named the 2013 World Building of the Year. Judges appreciated the 'sophisticated use of materials, particularly timber.' (Image: John Gollings/Gollings Photography)

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