Rocky path for Amazon’s delivery drones

A handout provided by showed a remote aerial vehicle that the retailer hopes to develop to deliver goods.
A handout provided by showed a remote aerial vehicle that the retailer hopes to develop to deliver goods.

NEW YORK — Online retailer’s idea for super-fast delivery of packages by unmanned aerial drones faces considerable logistical, legal, and privacy hurdles, according to analysts and a US senator.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told CBS’s ‘‘60 Minutes’’ Sunday that the company envisioned using unmanned drones to deliver goods in 30 minutes or less. He acknowledged that the technology is still several years away and the Federal Aviation Administration would need to develop regulations.

Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey said Monday that clear rules are needed to protect the privacy of Americans before commercial drones take to US airspace.


Markey, a longtime representative before winning the seat vacated by John Kerry when he was named secretary of state, has been a leading advocate for legislation that would expand privacy protections to keep pace with the advancing capacity of telecommunications and technology.

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Bezos said that while the drones would look like something out of science fiction, there’s no reason they can’t be used as delivery vehicles.

Bezos said they 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.


Drone delivery faces several legal and technology obstacles similar to Google’s experimental driverless car. How do you design a machine that safely navigates the roads or skies without hitting anything? And, if an accident does occur, who is legally liable?

Then there are the security issues. Delivering packages by drone might be impossible in a city like Washington, D.C., which has many no-fly zones.

‘‘The technology has moved forward faster than the law has kept pace,’’ said Brendan Schulman, special counsel at the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.

There is no prohibition on flying drones for recreational use, but since 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration has said they can’t be used for commercial uses.

Schulman is currently challenging that regulation before a federal administrative law judge on behalf of a client who was using a radio-controlled aircraft to shoot video for an advertising agency. Autonomous flights like Amazon is proposing, without somebody at the controls, are also prohibited.


The FAA is slowly moving forward with guidelines to allow expanded use of drones but has had numerous delays. Many of the commercial advances in drone use have come out of Europe, Australia, and Japan.

‘‘The delay has really been to the disadvantage of companies here,’’ Schulman said. ‘‘Generally, the government wants to promote the advancement of science and technology. In this case, the government has done exactly the opposite and thwarted the ability of small, start-up companies to develop commercial applications for this revolutionary technology.’’

Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako said the company has been in contact with the FAA ‘‘as they are actively working on necessary regulation.’’