Deutsche Post Tests Deliveries With Drones
Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty ImagesA Deutsche Post/DHL drone tests package delivery.
Like overgrown flying insects, corporate drones will be buzzing through our skies if the Federal Aviation Administration can establish rules for the operation of "unmanned aerial vehicles" (in official jargon) in commercial American airspace by September 2015, the deadline set by Congress.

Whether the FAA hits that target or not, it's just about certain that corporate UAV usage will be part of our very near future. As if to confirm this inevitability, one of the most powerful companies on Earth is soaring quickly into the drone segment.

Search in the Sky

That company is Google (GOOG), which earlier this month acquired privately held Titan Aerospace for an undisclosed amount. This isn't its first drone sortie; last May, the company's venture capital division invested nearly $11 million in Airware, which manufactures piloting systems for UAVs.

Titan Aerospace has an interesting edge that made it appealing not only to Google but also Facebook (FB), which according to media reports was also in the running to acquire it. Titan drones run on solar power and therefore are able to stay aloft for years at a time.

Why would either company want to go airborne? According to Google, its drone company purchases are part of a broader effort to spread Internet connectivity around the world by beaming it from the sky. Currently, the company is using high-altitude balloons.

No matter the delivery vehicle, the object is the same -- to gain business through the exponential growth of Internet users. Getting ads in front of even an additional fraction of either site's hordes of visitors will reap significant rewards, making the money plowed into the little aircraft more than worth the investment.

Flying Right Up to Your Front Door

Google has another angle to play. The company is testing a same-day shopping service in which customers can order products from a range of popular stores, including American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) and Walgreen (WAG). If the offering catches on, it would provide a potentially very profitable use for Google's drones.

Amazon.com (AMZN) has been developing a fleet of "octocopters," eight-propeller unmanned craft that, according to CEO Jeff Bezos, will be able to deposit a customer's goods within half an hour of the order being placed.

Cribbing its name from the retailer's current premium service, the Amazon drone effort is known as Prime Air. The company hasn't made public just how much the project is costing, but Bezos admits that it needs more investment and will require approval from relevant regulators like the FAA.

The determined CEO's enthusiasm is very apparent, though, so we can count on the Amazon air force to start bringing us our books, video games, and groceries even before the four-to-five-year time frame that Bezos estimates for rollout.

Hot Air?

These are early days for commercial drone use, and skepticism abounds, even among some who should be natural proponents of the technology.

Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of logistics king FedEx (FDX), characterized the concept of drone delivery as "almost amusing" in a quarterly conference call at the end of last year. That's not a ringing endorsement.

Nor is the quote from UPS (UPS) Chief Information Officer Dave Barnes, who told CNBC that "the idea that an individual drone with one package... that's probably not what we see in the future." He did acknowledge, however, that the means of delivery for logistics firms will undoubtedly change, adding that UPS plans to be a major player in that shift.

It'll be a while before proper regulations are set and drone technology advances to the point where they're useful in commerce and cost-efficient. But there's no doubt that commercial drones are coming to our airspace.

When it does, look for the early adopters -- the Googles and the Amazons -- to zoom ahead before the rest of the pack catches up. Sooner or later, even the doubters are sure to take to the skies.

Motley Fool contributor Eric Volkman owns shares of Facebook. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon, Facebook, FedEx, Google (A and C shares) and UPS. It owns shares of Amazon, Facebook and Google (A and C shares).



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12 Comments

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Holli, Chaney

I don't mind Prive Drones..Just the Government ones.

April 27 2014 at 6:04 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Holli, Chaney

I am thinking PIZZA is the future for this. No drivers.. No instrance risk. 20minutes or less.

April 27 2014 at 6:02 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Larry

Coming Soon: The Drone Intercetor.

April 26 2014 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ladee1soca

No, just no!

April 26 2014 at 6:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Velocity105

Let's not forget how easy it will be for non-customers to take advantage of someone's drones during the delivery cycle. The simple act of buying a pump pellet gun and shooting one down over your backyard puts drone delivery right in the crosshairs. My UPS, FedEx and USPS packages have been stolen before, imagine how easy it will be when the deliverers don't have a brain. lol

April 26 2014 at 6:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
alfredschrader

Jeff Bezos is a genius. This is just the start. Soon these things will get bigger and you will have one in your driveway. You'll get in it. Touch your destination on a touch screen, and zoom off you go.

April 26 2014 at 12:56 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to alfredschrader's comment
tony

Ya true, bozoe sure is lol.

April 27 2014 at 1:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jaleonatti

#1-Weather. Wind, rain, sleet, hail--the drones will be crashing everywhere and their costly cargos will be lost or stolen. Same with malfunctions.
#2 People will be shooting them down for sport and gain.
#3 Does everyone have a yard for them to land in? No. If they did, would many of the packages be stolen before anyone came home? Yes. Would they be protected from wind and rain until someone came home? No.
#4 Can they detect and avoid power lines?
#5 Will they collide with small aircraft or cause the pilot to make sudden dangerous evasive moves?
#6 Would Google and Amazon face multiple liability suits ad infinitum? You bet!

April 25 2014 at 12:01 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
davidcpasq

worst possible idea of all time. this is the last thing i want to see buzzing around my neighborhood. just because the tech industry thinks this is a good thing does not make it so.

April 25 2014 at 10:54 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to davidcpasq's comment
tony

But if I did, thats different.

April 27 2014 at 1:46 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
david.curry5

Drone delivery? Just another moving target for Hunters to shoot down! And they will thinking they also have cameras attached to spy on the public. Wow! Another form of Skeet Shooting without Skeets!

April 25 2014 at 10:32 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to david.curry5's comment
tony

Wake up people, or should thou say sheep. The govt pushed the banks to make credit cards available 2 almost all, the govt pushed fone company's to make cell fones available to all, ALL 4 the sole purpose so that they can spy on every 1 easier. & that also allows them (the feds) to FRAME all you idiots easier. Have a nice night.

April 27 2014 at 1:56 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply