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A delivery idea that's no longer plane crazy?

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Amazon's long-awaited drones may be here sooner than you think, according to details published by the US Patent Office. But, asks Katie Wright, will regulatory hurdles manage to stop the retailer from getting its plans off the ground?

When Amazon unveiled its drone delivery plans back 2013, no-one was entirely sure how serious the idea was, but now the web retailer is one step closer to making its Prime Air shipping service a reality.

The US Patent and Trademark Office has published a patent application made by the company for an "unmanned vehicle delivery system", which lays out how the flying dispatchers might work.

The document includes images showing what the new shipping options might look like for shoppers, who can specify a location for the drop like "my boat," not just a fixed address, thereby cutting out the "last mile delivery" aspect usually performed by a human, ie, putting the package through your letterbox.

The propeller-driven machines, of which there will be a range of sizes, will also be able to wing parcels directly to a person by tracking their position from their smartphone. The bots might "talk" to each other, too, advising on the best route to take, and use cameras, radar and infrared to dodge obstacles and locate a landing zone.

Amazon's ambition is to provide 30-minute delivery within 10-miles of its distribution centres, and it promises that "one day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road".

Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos had previously hoped for a 2015 launch, but now that's not looking likely.

Research and development aside, his legal team has got plenty of regulatory hoops to jump through first. The main obstacle is winning over the notoriously slow US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the body which currently forbids widespread commercial use of unmanned aircraft.

Prime Air testing had been taking place in Canada, where airspace rules aren't as stringent, but in March the FAA agreed trials could start in America, albeit with restrictions - the drones can't fly higher than 122 metres and must be visible to the pilot at all times.

Amazon responded by saying it had already moved on to more advanced drones, but now two US Senators have introduced legislation to fast-track the testing guidelines, saying the US is in danger of failing to keep up with the pace of innovation.

Meanwhile, over here transport minister Robert Goodwill revealed that he had been in talks with Amazon about drone trials in the UK because "regulations in the US were too restrictive".

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