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Amazon’s Prime Air: Retail takes to the skies?

An Amazon PrimeAir drone.
An Amazon PrimeAir drone.REUTERS

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos performed a masterful publicity stunt Sunday when he announced on “60 Minutes” that his company wants to start delivering customer purchases via unmanned aircraft. Bezos unleashed speculation all around the world about how his “Prime Air” service would operate — and, oh, by the way, guaranteed endless water cooler conversations about Amazon on Cyber Monday, the e-commerce industry’s much-hyped equivalent of the Black Friday retail binge. Yet the announcement also puts pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration, which has to determine whether and how to accommodate the kind of drone flights that Amazon and surely other retailers are contemplating.

If Bezos hadn’t taken this step first, someone else would have; the US military’s widespread use of the devices in Afghanistan and Pakistan has clearly stirred the imaginations of law enforcement agencies and private companies in the United States. The FAA, which has broad authority over air safety matters, just last month offered a “roadmap” for integrating nonmilitary drones into the aviation system. Yet the FAA’s prediction of up to 7,500 unmanned aircraft in the nation’s airspace within five years could prove low should Amazon and its rivals be allowed to take their competition to the skies. Avoiding overhead collisions, not to mention the accidental bombardment of pedestrians with verbose novels, will become an urgent matter. Prime Air may not pan out, but the aviation agency would be wise to plan for it anyway.