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Delivery By Drone? Amazon Says A New Era Looms

Amazon is looking at drastically reducing its delivery times — to 30 minutes or less — as it plans a new service called Prime Air that it says could debut in a few years. In an interview on CBS' 60 Minutes, CEO Jeff Bezos said the giant online retailer plans to use semi-autonomous drones to carry purchases to customers.

That's got tech experts buzzing about whether the idea will fly.

Bezos tells Charlie Rose that Amazon's "octocopters" could be airborne within four to five years, using GPS coordinates to find customers. "These are effectively drones," Bezos says, "but there's no reason that they can't be used as delivery vehicles."

The drones would depart from the retailer's "fulfillment centers," the huge warehouses it has built near many large population centers in the U.S. and elsewhere. They can carry about 5 pounds, Bezos says, a figure that covers around 85 percent of Amazon's products.

"I know this looks like science fiction," Bezos tells Rose. "It's not."

The delivery drones would be particularly useful in densely populated urban areas, Bezos says. Powered by electricity, their current range of operation is around 10 miles from the point of origin.

As for when the new drones could be buzzing around in the air above your neighborhood, Bezos says, "I know it can't be before 2015, because that's the earliest we could get the rules from the FAA. My guess is that's probably a little optimistic."

"It will work, and it will happen, and it's gonna be a lot of fun," Bezos says.

The folks over at the Quartz technology blog aren't so sure. Writing that "drones can explode, or run into things," the site's Heather Timmons notes that safety concerns may limit where the new delivery devices could be used.

Those concerns are tied to the chances that a drone's battery or machinery could burst into flames, she says, and the possibility of a collision between a drone and a commercial aircraft.

And as Bezos noted in his 60 Minutes interview, "this thing can't land on somebody's head while they're walking around their neighborhood."

In addition to safety concerns, drones could face another challenge before they're widely used for delivery: overcoming the possible suspicions of citizens who have mostly seen the unmanned aircraft mentioned in conjunction with military and surveillance uses.

The interview with Bezos also touched on the retailer's 10-year, $600 million contract with the CIA through its Amazon Web Services unit. The company is using its technological expertise to build a computing cloud for the agency, Bezos said.

When asked by Rose if that presented a conflict, Bezos answered, "We're building what's called a private cloud for them, Charlie, because they don't want to be on the public cloud."

Amazon isn't alone in pursuing drone delivery. Earlier this year, a pilot project (sorry about that) by Domino's Pizza looked at flying hot pizzas to customers in Britain, posting a video of a successful test run.

That led the site Singularity Hub to observe:

"So why are drones such a big deal? In our robotic future, anything that can reduce urban congestion, minimize carbon emissions, save money and save trips to the emergency room (car accidents kill, you know) will drive huge value in the economy and make our lives better, to boot."

Update at Noon, ET: Drones And Privacy

Responding to Sunday night's announcement, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, issued a statement in which he said, "Convenience should never trump constitutional protections."

"Before our skies teem with commercial drones, clear rules must be set that protect the privacy and safety of the public," Markey says.

The senator has drafted legislation to protect U.S. citizens that, he says, "requires transparency on the domestic use of drones and adds privacy protections that ensure this technology cannot and will not be used to spy on Americans."

Markey's bill would amend the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which calls for the FAA to integrate drones into U.S. airspace by October of 2015. His amendment cites estimates that by 2020, there could be "as many as 30,000 unmanned aircraft systems in the sky in the United States."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.