Many people in the tech industry can remember exactly where and when they were when they first heard about Amazon’s plans to use unmanned flying drones to deliver products to their customers in as little as 30 minutes from when they were ordered online.

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos first unveiled the plan to Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” in December, 2013, it had the same impact for many as watching the first moon landing, the Challenger explosion, or 9/11. We all knew instantly that everything had changed forever.


Future Shock

So far, the 21st Century has been lived up to expectations as far as futuristic developments. Unrestricted mobile access to the Internet has connected us all. Driverless cars are only a few more years away. And big data analysis has allowed governments to spy not only on their enemies, but on all of their own citizens simultaneously.

So perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised by Bezos announcement that the world’s largest online retailer (and world’s largest store, for that matter) was developing tiny unmanned helicopters that could transport the books, small appliances and other products we purchased online directly to our doorstep in literally minutes after we clicked the “Buy Now” button.

After the initial “gee whiz” shock of the announcement wore off, next came the naysayers: “The FAA will never let them do it.” “There are too many power lines, phone wires and other detritus for drones to actually work.” “Aren’t those the same type of drones we use to drop bombs on the heads of our enemies?”


It’s Finally Happening

The pushback from the Amazon announcement had all but erased the idea from most people’s minds. Until now, that is. Now, it look as if it’s actually happening.

Earlier this month, the FAA granted Amazon a special exemption that allowed the retailer to begin real-time testing of its Prime Air drone fleet of unmanned helicopters.

Despite objections from airlines and agricultural pilots, the FAA gave Amazon Prime Air the green light, stating that the drones posed less safety risk than larger drones used for defense and aerospace purposes. Some observers said that suggests the FAA would be okay with Amazon’s unmanned drone delivery plans, as long as it was limited for the time being in location, site access, two-way communication capabilities, and pilot experience.


Pilot Program to Start Right Away

The FAA’s exemption allows Amazon to roll out a pilot program using drones that weigh less than 55 pounds – including the payload – and that travel below speeds of 100 miles per hour. The drones can only be operated at altitudes lower than 400 feet and, for the time being at least, must be within the unaided sight of human controllers at all times.

Although opponents asked that Amazon be limited to using controllers who hold commercial airline pilot license, or at least private pilot licenses, the FAA agreed to allow the online retailer to use controllers who had only recreational or sport pilot certificate, which requires far less training and certification. Controllers also will need to have a valid driver’s license.

The ultimate goal of Amazon is to dispatch squadrons of drones from regional distribution centers located all over the US. Consumers would be able to receive delivery of their orders in 30 minutes or less.

If the program is successful, it could change the face of package delivery permanently. Other retailers would almost certainly follow suit. And soon the low-altitude airways could be filled with unmanned drones flying back and forth overhead like something out of a science fiction movie.