Amazon is developing unmanned aerial drones that its founder Jeff Bezos says it could be using to deliver packages to consumers within five years.
“I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not,” said Mr Bezos, unveiling a square device with eight propellers and a grip that holds on to yellow buckets for parcels.
The drone initiative is the latest in a line of so-called “moonshot” projects from the likes of Tesla’s Elon Musk and Google’s Sergey Brin, which are attempting to bring nearer a future of airborne internet providers, accelerated transit networks and self-driving cars.
Speaking on the CBS television programme 60 Minutes, Mr Bezos said the drones could enable the online retailer to deliver packages within 30 minutes of customers pressing the “buy” button on Amazon.
“I don’t want anybody to think this is just around the corner,” he said. “But could it be ... four or five years? I think so.”
Amazon said it had to wait for the drones – which it calls Octocopters – to be permitted by Federal Aviation Administration rules.
Mr Bezos said the drones would not be controlled remotely by human operators. “These are autonomous. So you give them instructions of which GPS co-ordinates to go to, and they take off and they fly to those GPS co-ordinates,” he said.
He said Amazon needed to do more work on the technology to ensure that “this thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighbourhood”.
The mooted service, which Amazon is calling Prime Air, would be the most extreme example of Amazon’s efforts to win more business from bricks-and-mortar stores with ever-faster delivery speeds.
Amazon has already drawn Walmart and eBay into a race to offer same-day courier delivery, a challenge to the instant gratification offered by bricks-and-mortar stores.
The online retailer ensured the drone project was revealed on the cusp of Cyber Monday, a big day for online Christmas shopping – timing that is likely to ensure it gets a big chunk of media attention on the day.
Asked if drone-based deliveries would be cheaper than deliveries by trucks and truck drivers, Amazon did not answer directly but said: “We’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary rules are in place.”
It said that the drones’ eight engines were electric, “making it inherently greener than today’s standard delivery vehicles”. It added: “We expect rapid innovation in this space in a relatively short period of time.”
Mr Bezos said the drones could carry packages that weigh up to 2.3kg, which account for 86 per cent of the goods Amazon delivers.
Amazon posted a video on its website of a drone taking off from one of its warehouses and landing outside somebody’s front door.
Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco
Meanwhile, bookseller Waterstones was quick to respond with its own wry take on alternative delivery solutions, a video titled ‘O.W.L.S’.