News & Politics

Jeff Bezos Introduces Plans for Unmanned Delivery Drones

The Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner wants flying robots to make deliveries, though getting that in DC is unlikely.

The frightening future of commerce. Photograph courtesy Amazon.

Jeff Bezos wants to be Skynet. The Amazon founder’s next passion project after taking over the Washington Post sounds like something out of Terminator, but on 60 Minutes last night, the terrifying robotic future became very real. 

Bezos wants to fill the skies with an army of self-guided drones to deliver your Amazon orders.

Bezos said that he envisions that as early as 2015, his drones could be buzzing by your house. Bezos showed off two model “octocopters”—eight-bladed unmanned aerial vehicles—capable of lugging small parcels from an Amazon warehouse to a shipping destination within 30 minutes of placing an order.

Bezos is waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to issue rules governing drones used for commercial purposes. The FAA currently allows drones in domestic airspace on a case-by-case basis for law enforcement and military purposes. Drones used for photography and other activities are permitted below 400 feet.

The secret project was unveiled at the end of the segment, though Bezos admitted the model drones, emblazoned with “Amazon Prime Air,” are still very much prototypes. But the test run 60 Minutes showed was uncanny: An Amazon item weighing less than five pounds is placed in a container and rolled down a conveyor belt where the drone picks it up with a claw. From there, the drone is programmed with GPS coordinates and flies to its destination without the need for a remote pilot.

Bezos said the drone service will be available to customers within 10 miles of one of Amazon’s warehouses. The company currently has 37 spread across the United States, most within spitting distance of a major city. But even if he gets favorable FAA regulations, it’s unlikely the service will come to Washington. The FAA has prohibited unauthorized aircraft from flying over DC since 9/11, and drone hobbyists here have been grounded.

So while everyone else cowers in fear (or ducks to avoid being clipped by one of the drone’s eight blades), Amazon’s customers in Washington will still get their shipments the old-fashioned way. And we’ll be spared the awkwardness of figuring out a year-end tip for a newspaper delivery drone.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.