January 01, 2014
When Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, announced Prime Air, a proposed service in which drones deliver small, light products to customers near Amazon warehouses, he incited a debate:
Is Bezos peddling PR fluff, or is this a new business model?
But it is not an either/or question. With Prime Air, Bezos is trying to accomplish a bit of both with the idea of octocopters dropping off purchases weighing up to five pounds within 10 miles of Amazon’s 96 distribution centers worldwide.
The announcement keeps Amazon’s name in the news as Google gathers resources to challenge Amazon’s online retailing supremacy. It also seems timed to swamp a growing workers’-rights campaign against Amazon like the one that still pesters Walmart. And anything that promises to take delivery trucks off urban streets, reducing traffic and greenhouse-gas emissions, is welcome news for many people.
At the same time, Bezos is lending credibility to what is probably an inevitable business service, if not a business model. The U.S. government has yet to approve commercial drone flights.
Is 2015 the magic number?
At least one other company in the world, a textbook-rental startup in Australia called Zookal Pty. Ltd., also says it plans drone delivery. Zookal has formed a joint venture, called Flirtey, to build autonomous six-bladed aircraft.
Assuming that home delivery from the air can be done safely, Bezos has the resources to do so. After all, it is not rocket science (which is good, given the setbacks that his other company, Blue Origin, has suffered in trying to make civilian space flight affordable).
Bezos told the TV news program “60 Minutes” that his engineers are hammering out system-redundancy issues with the drones, making sure no single point of failure can crash a drone.
Problems and government regulation should be resolved in five years, he told “60 Minutes”, pushing any launch to the end of this decade. Keep in mind, all milestones on the path to opening the national airspace for autonomous vehicles by 2015 have, thus far, fallen victim to significant delays. For what it is worth, Zookal, which has yet to deliver any books by drone anywhere, says it will be able to air-deliver goods in the United States by 2015.
Contrarian views of a not-so-high-flying future for UAVs puts 2015 in jeopardy for the fledgling airborne industry:
Opportunities for drone delivery are significant. Faster delivery—Bezos says he will offer 30-minute drop-offs—likely will increase consumer purchases by making a tie or piece of jewelry as much of an impulse buy online as it can be in a shop window.
Such a service almost certainly would focus on a person’s smartphone, both for ordering and delivery, which would add “wherever I am” to delivery options.
That alone should stimulate spending. Fresh sunscreen could arrive as the buyer reaches his hotel’s rooftop pool. Forgotten utensils could be delivered to the picnic before the volleyball net goes up.
More broadly, John Boyd, a principal in corporate-site-selection firm The Boyd Co. Inc., says Prime Air would spur knock-off services, and that possibility would impact siting decisions for larger retail firms.
Of course, rapid drone deliveries would pressure small businesses and even convenience stores, few of which could afford to offer that service. They would still have advantages to exploit, however, including:
- Product-and-service combinations like a clothier/tailor
- Specialized goods unlikely to be in a nearby Amazon warehouse
- Weatherproof delivery using local delivery services like Zipments Inc.
- Advice and expertise as part of the sale—auto parts, for example
- Selective sourcing (like locally made goods)
- Security. Delivering on a lawn or even to a mobile is not necessarily the same as delivering to the buyer
- Greater privacy. While privacy can no longer be guaranteed, sole proprietors are less likely to be tapped by government agencies, which have compromised several major Internet companies
Real and perceived limitations
While Bezos faces significant limiting factors, technology accounts for few of them.
Batteries can power a drone carrying a five-pound package for 30 minutes and return it to its home warehouse. With almost 100 distribution centers around the globe (many near cities), Amazon can reach most of its 225 million customers. Battery technology will limit expansion in the near term.
Often mentioned as a limitation, collision avoidance increasingly is a manageable task even in chaotic environments. Drone-mounted ultra-sensitive sound systems, such as Microflown Technologies’ Avisa, can detect and track everything from rifle fire to jets as well as surrounding drones.
And Amazon has the raw computing power to play traffic controller to its own global hive of drones.
System redundancy is critical—so critical, in fact, that Bezos was willing to say on “60 Minutes” that it is an issue. But even here, the solutions involve fairly standard coding and engineering.
The biggest technological worry will be the middle five minutes of every delivery.
“It’s not hard to fly between two points,” says Brandon Basso, head of R&D at 3D Robotics Inc., a maker of agribusiness drones. “Robots have a hard time with unstructured environments. My sense is that all the big technological challenges will be at drop-off.”
The craft have to identify their landing site as well as any obstructions like people, pets, trees, debris and such.
It is an open question whether Amazon will have to worry about theft once its octocopters make drops. The formidable laws protecting U.S. postal service do not cover private parcel delivery, and a package sitting on a walk is more tempting than one leaning on a front door.
Of course, that assumes there is a spot near a door on which to land. Most people in cities live in multistory buildings, leaving only sidewalks, roofs and the occasional balcony open for landing.
Public perception is likely to be a limiting factor, too. Even the specter of privacy invasion can provoke vocal reactions to drones. A broad spectrum of people living everywhere from politically conservative West Virginia to the more liberal city of Seattle have successfully protested against over-flights.
There are two other skeptics Amazon will face. First are those who will be not want the visual or auditory distraction of the craft. Second are those who will point out any job losses brought about by use of the devices.
It is uncertain how Bezos, even with his immense net worth, will fare against these hurdles.