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Amazon is getting lots of attention this morning for its plan to deploy autonomous flying drones to deliver packages to customers’ doorsteps — including plenty of skepticism about the viability of the idea. But the revelation by Jeff Bezos on 60 Minutes last night actually wasn’t a huge surprise to people who have been closely tracking the push toward unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other forms of robotics.

Charlie Rose with Jeff Bezos on Amazon’s Seattle campus.

“I think of this as yet another indication that robotics is the next transformative technology after the Internet,” said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law who focuses on areas including robotics and technology. Discussing the news with GeekWire via phone this morning, he likened the announcement of “Amazon Prime Air” to the past unveiling of Google’s driverless car project.

One reason Amazon’s plan wasn’t a huge surprise: The government has been taking initial steps to allow for the integration of unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace. A 74-page Federal Aviation Administration report, released in November, laid out a roadmap for UAVs based on the mandates of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Amazon’s plan seems to be precisely the type of thing Congress had in mind in passing that law, Calo said.

But the report also points to regulatory hurdles that Amazon will need to overcome to implement its plan. First, the report signals that autonomous operations will not be permitted — defining autonomous operations as “any system design that precludes any person from affecting the normal operations of the aircraft.”

Ryan Calo
UW law prof Ryan Calo

The FAA report also indicates that each unmanned aircraft system would need to have a designated “pilot in command” controlling the system.

Bezos told Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes that Amazon’s aircraft would be autonomous, but didn’t go into detail on the infrastructure or human teams that would be backing the system.

At minimum, Amazon will need to work with the FAA to ensure that final rules don’t require so much infrastructure and human involvement on the ground that the concept becomes economically unfeasible, Calo pointed out.

Security and safety issues will also need to be addressed before the concept can fly. (“It’s like the new shoplifting,” joked Calo. “Instead of going to the mall to shoplift, kids will be sitting on their computers trying to take these things down.”)

But if these hurdles can be overcome, Amazon is in a good position to move forward with its “Prime Air” fleet. Among other things, the company’s acquisition of Kiva Systems last year gave it top experts in robotics and automation. “I think Amazon could be ready to go on this as soon as they get the regulatory green light,” Calo said.

droneIn its Prime Air FAQ, Amazon says, “We hope the FAA’s rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015. We will be ready at that time.”

On 60 Minutes, Bezos was more cautious. “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, that’s probably a little optimistic. But could it be, you know, four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

The Amazon CEO also said on the segment, “The hard part here is putting in all the redundancy, all the reliability, all the systems you need to say, ‘Look, this thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighborhood.”

But what would this mean for Amazon’s business in the long run?

“The overall theme is that Amazon could actually find profit margins with a fleet of drones,” writes ZDNet’s Larry Dignan. “These drones, which could carry up to five pounds for 10 miles, would cover 86 percent of the goods Amazon sells. Shipping costs would plummet and Amazon could depreciate its fleet of drones. In theory, Amazon’s bottom line could improve dramatically — unless Bezos finds some other venture to invest in.”

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