Amazon Drones: As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap

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As a drone hipster — I wrote an entire novel about a drone apocalypse a full five years ago — I watched the techosphere’s reactions to Amazon’s announcement that it was experimenting with drone delivery with a mixture of amusement and despair. Almost everybody is thinking so small. Jeff Bezos must feel like Butch Cassidy: “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

The naysayers were out in force. “Even if the Feds Let Them Fly, Amazon’s Delivery Drones Are Still Nonsense,” bleated Wired‘s Marcus Wohlsen. Dan Lyons reacted to the piece with a condemnation of “the credibility of CBS and 60 Minutes,” again complaining that drone deliveries are “years away.” The Guardian‘s James Bell dismissed it as “little more than a publicity stunt,” and added: “what happens when next door’s kid decides to shoot the drone with his BB rifle?” And Slate called it “hot air” and compared it to an April Fool’s joke.

What is wrong with these people? Do they moonlight as stock analysts who only care about the next quarter’s results? Do they have no vision at all? Do they not care about anything unless it will directly interact with them tomorrow, or at the absolute latest, next year? They’re the same ilk who, I’m sure, claimed that credit cards would never work, that merchants would never adopt them, that people would not use them, that fraud would make their use untenable.

I’m choosing that as the analogy because drones lost to birds and BB guns will be treated in exactly the same way credit-card providers treat fraud today: as an acceptable loss in the context of that enormous business. Yes, drone reliability will need to improve, and bad weather will be a problem. Yes, regulatory roadblocks need to be hurdled. Yes, the logistics of drone delivery need to be fine-tuned. No, you won’t see drones arriving at your doorstep anytime soon; Amazon drone delivery will presumably begin with small pilot projects delivering to organizations that own their own buildings. To quote Bezos himself:

The hard part here is putting in all the redundancy, all the reliability, all the systems you need to say, ‘Look, this thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighborhood,’

But at the same time, “Technically it is totally feasible,” according to MIT aeronautics professor R. John Hansman. Which may explain why DHL and UPS are testing drone delivery too. (But remember; nonsense! hot air! nothing but a publicity stunt! Sigh.)

Yes, the cost to Amazon will be extremely high, to begin with…but in the long run, this isn’t merely about delivering the goods you buy. In fact that service might wind up as a mere loss leader. As usual, John Robb — you might remember his DroneNet idea, which I wrote about a year ago — has a more clearly farsighted view of what’s really going on here:

This isn’t about supplementing UPS; in the long run, this is about supplanting them — and FedEx, and the Post Office — with Amazon Delivery Services. After all, once you’ve got an Amazon Skyport on the roof of your business, or your apartment building, and once their reliability has been established, why would you only use it to receive packages? Why would you ever go to the post office or wait for UPS pickup again?

On the other hand Bezos’ dream might well be delayed, or even quelled, by an outright ban on drones in private hands. No, really.

I’m not talking about drone surveillance, although that will be a problem. What I’m worried about (and have been for some time; it’s what my drone novel is about) is drone terrorism. Because after a drone packed with Semtex targets its victim’s GPS coordinates or license plate and blows them up, you’ll have one hell of a time trying to trace it back to its sender. Oh, and drone crime, too; you can expect fleets of them to be flying north across the Rio Grande in the next decade, full of drugs. And if many of them are intercepted, well, that’s just acceptable loss, again.

Drones will decouple criminals from their crimes, and there’s precious little that the authorities can do about that. I expect the widespread rollout of Amazon’s delivery drones to be delayed not by fundamental technical or logistical problems but by an inevitable backlash. One which, some would argue, politicians of all people should have seen coming, for “as ye sow,” it is said, “so shall ye reap…”

Image Credit: Wikimedia