Are Amazon's drones a fantasy or the future?

  • This undated image provided by Amazon.com shows the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project that Amazon is working on in its research and development labs. Amazon says it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations, but CEO Jeff Bezos said Sunday Dec. 1, 2013, there's no reason drones can't help get goods to customers in 30 minutes or less. (AP Photo/Amazon)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Hard to believe, but there was once a time when the visionaries worked for the government. Rebuilding a ruined Europe, putting a man on the moon, ending poverty, connecting the American interior with highways -- these were immense tasks undertaken, and often achieved, by bureaucrats.

The wild dreamers these days work for technology companies. Elon Musk, not content with making the first commercially viable electric car, has plans for a trainlike system that would speed travelers at 600 mph. Google, hard at work assembling the world's information, has started a company to cheat death. Mark Zuckerberg has plans to put everyone in the world in touch.

And now Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com's chief executive, says he is planning to take something that looks like a barbecue grill, attach eight propellers and a basket to it and use it to deliver small items to people's houses. He sketched a vision where no one would ever have to get off their hammocks to get a resupply of Pringles or Milk Duds.

Package delivery by drone is a loopy idea, far-fetched and the subject of instant mockery on Twitter -- but it is hard to deny its audacity.

"I am blown away by what I see coming out of the private sector these days," said Andrew McAfee, co-founder of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "All the building blocks are in place for breakthroughs: The Internet goes everywhere. Everyone has a device connected to the network. And the cost of technology experimentation is so low. We don't need one single entity with massive resources to deliver these really cool innovations."

The announcement by Bezos on Sunday evening was one of those moments when the future suddenly seems much closer. But the news also served to emphasize a less appreciated hallmark of the tech world: its masterful use of public relations.

The revelation came at the end of a "60 Minutes" feature about Amazon and its preparations for Cyber Monday, the year's most hyped online shopping day.

"We can do half-hour delivery," Bezos said. He also said the drones could carry as much as 5 pounds and could fly 10 miles from the delivery center.

"I don't want anybody to think this is just around the corner," he said in an uncharacteristic note of caution.

Which brought up the immediate question: Why announce it now? Amazon is so tight-lipped, it will not often confirm what happened in the past, like how many Kindles it has sold. It almost never talks about the future.

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