AURORA, Colo - An Aurora drone maker believes Amazon's vision of a delivery system using GPS-controlled drones is not out of reach.
"The technology is here today," said Chris Miser, owner of Falcon UAV in Aurora. "This is not something that is five or ten years away. I can do what they are talking about right now."
Amazon is working on a way to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less -- via self-guided drone.
Amazon.com Inc. says it's working on the so-called "Prime Air" unmanned aircraft project but it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations.
The project was first reported by CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday night, hours before millions of shoppers turned to their computers to hunt Cyber Monday bargains.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in the interview that while his octocopters look like something out of science fiction, there's no reason they can't be used as delivery vehicles.
Bezos said the drones can carry packages that weigh up to five pounds, which covers about 86 percent of the items Amazon delivers. The drones the company is testing have a range of about 10 miles, which Bezos noted could cover a significant portion of the population in urban areas.
Bezos told "60 Minutes" the project could become a working service in four or five years.
Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos' proposed flying machines won't need humans to control them remotely. Amazon's drones would receive a set of GPS coordinates and automatically fly to them, presumably avoiding buildings, power lines and other obstacles.
Delivery drones raise a host of concerns, from air traffic safety to homeland security and privacy. There are technological and legal obstacles, too —similar to Google's experimental driverless car. How do you design a machine that safely navigates the roads or skies without hitting anything? And, if an accident occurs, who's legally liable?
The FAA is slowly moving forward with guidelines on commercial drone use. Last year, Congress directed the agency to grant drones access to U.S. skies by September 2015. But the agency already has missed several key deadlines and said the process would take longer than Congress expected.
Indeed, the FAA said Monday that it is moving forward with "regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote piloted (drones) to meet increased demand." The agency reiterated that "autonomous (drone) operation is not currently allowed in the United States."
Senator Mark Udall, D, Colorado, released a statement saying Amazon's announcement underscores the need for privacy laws to prevent drone surveillance or privacy abuse.
"Amazon's experimental drone delivery system is just the latest example of how unmanned aerial systems have the potential to change everything from retail shipping to search and rescue missions," Udall said. "As more businesses embrace this innovative and job-creating technology, we must ensure that our laws and regulations keep pace. Coloradans will accept this technology only if they are certain their privacy is protected and that Americans won't be victims of surveillance or privacy abuse by private unmanned aerial system operators."
Safety concerns could be the real obstacle in delaying drones for widespread commercial use.
It's not hard to imagine that the world's biggest online retailer has some significant lobbying muscle and might be able to persuade the FAA to alter the rules.
Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako says the company has been in contact with the FAA "as they are actively working on necessary regulation."
One of the biggest promises for civilian drone use is in agriculture because of the industry's largely unpopulated, wide open spaces. Delivering Amazon packages in midtown Manhattan will be much trickier. But the savings of such a delivery system only come in large, urban areas.
Besides regulatory approval, Amazon's biggest challenge will be to develop a collision avoidance system, says Darryl Jenkins, a consultant who gave up on the commercial airline industry and now focuses on drones.
Who is to blame, Jenkins asked, if the drone hits a bird, crashes into a building? Who is going to insure the deliveries?
There are also technical questions. Who will recharge the drone batteries? How many deliveries can the machines make before needing service?
"Jeff Bezos might be the single person in the universe who could make something like this happen," Jenkins says. "For what it worth, this is a guy who's totally changed retailing."
If Amazon gets its way, others might follow.
United Parcel Service Co. executives heard a presentation from a drone vendor earlier this year, says Alan Gershenhorn, UPS' chief sales, marketing and strategy officer.
"Commercial use of drones is an interesting technology, and we're certainly going to continue to evaluate it," Gershenhorn says.
The U.S. Postal Service and FedEx wouldn't speculate about using drones for delivery.