Amazon.com's plans to use remote-controlled drones to deliver products to consumers dominated the news for a few days after company founder Jeff Bezos revealed the scheme in a "60 Minutes" interview. But, as our defense logistics expert Steve Geary points out in a blog post, Amazon is well behind the curve: The U.S. Marines have been using drones to make deliveries for some time now.
As Geary noted in a Dec. 8 post, "The Marines have flown unmanned cargo helicopters for the past year and a half in Afghanistan, completing about 1,300 missions. The Marines' K-MAX unmanned helicopter ... flies resupply missions to combat outposts in Southwest Afghanistan, and it does it to keep our sons and daughters out of harm's way." (Geary also wrote about the concept during its test phase in 2010.)
According to Geary, the Marine Corps version of a delivery drone can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo and reportedly has a range of about 500 miles, "which means that it could do a round-trip delivery from Boston to New York City."
Amazon is not even the first to deploy drones for consumer deliveries. According to news reports, China's Shunfeng Express is experimenting with drones for package delivery. And in Australia, a textbook-rental startup called Zookal says it will begin using drones for deliveries in Sydney in 2014. Customers will be able to track a drone's progress via a smartphone app; the drones hover overhead and lower their loads at a command from a customer's phone. Anticollision technology will help keep Zookal's dome-shaped flyers away from trees, buildings, and birds. (Hawks and falcons regularly menace remote-controlled aircraft, as a flock of YouTube videos attest.)
Regulations controlling the movements of unmanned flying vehicles will have to be amended or updated before any of the companies can make commercial deliveries.