I hope Amazon’s drones never get off the ground

amazon droneI love technology. I’m never one to write when I can type, and wouldn’t dream of doing analogue what could be accomplished by some fancy gadget or tricky app. Whenever technology is dangled in front of me, I don’t just bite, I megabyte.

And yes, I probably should have used a comedy app to find a better joke to put there.

But there comes a time when even a gadget freak like me must use his trendy aluminium stylus to draw a line on his tablet.

And I choose to draw it just short of the point where Amazon.com dispatches a massive army of drones to deliver orders by flying to your front door.

That’s right – the world’s largest online retailer is seriously pursuing a fleet of airborne delivery copters to cut its delivery times down to thirty minutes, which probably includes the time they’ll need to fire missiles at any remaining physical bookstores that haven’t already been crushed by Amazon.

Call me a Luddite. Call me one on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or even Google+.* Hey, even app.net if you know what it is, which I mention merely to establish my geek bona fides. But there are so many problems with the drone idea that I don’t quite know where to start.

Nevertheless, Jeff Bezos has always been one to dream big, so I guess I shouldn’t be afraid to criticise big as well. Here goes.

For starters, the whole thing seems incredibly dangerous. Bezos concedes that they need to figure out how to stop these things landing on people’s heads, which is awfully considerate of him. But here’s the thing – all vehicles crash a certain proportion of the time, and all electronic devices fail. A crash is bad enough when it’s on the ground, but imagine what an airborne drone crash would be like. These things have whirring propellers, and they’re heavy enough to do real damage. There is absolutely no way that Amazon can guarantee that these drones will be safe.

I’m going to come out and assert that the acceptable casualty rate so that people can get their crap delivered to them more quickly is zero. If anybody got injured even slightly just so that some lazy sod could get their Kindle delivered twenty-four hours earlier than it would have arrived by road, it would be not only awful, but a massive publicity nightmare for Amazon.

And how do you stop the drones crashing into each other, given how many of them there would be in this scenario? Sensors maybe, but sensors fail. If every company has its own delivery drones, how do you make their systems interface so they won’t crash? I know this is being done on the road for driverless cars, but doing things in the air – in three dimensions instead of two – is massively more complex.

Oh, they’ll use GPS, apparently. But if anyone’s ever navigated via GPS and digital maps, they’ll know that the data sets are riddled with imperfections, so much so that they come with safety warnings that say you shouldn’t just blindly follow them onto, say, an airport runway, which is where Apple Maps recently directed some drivers. And if human common sense wasn’t enough to override those directions, which could have caused a plane-on-car crash, what hope do autonomous drones have?

Then there’s privacy. I assume these drones would have cameras on them for accountability, safety and remote piloting reasons, even if they’ll largely be automated. Amazon makes millions of deliveries each year – are we comfortable with a private company having cameras absolutely everywhere? What if they monitored competitors – if there even are any left, the way Amazon’s going?

And we can assume that the NSA will have access to the cameras’ video streams – whether it’s legal for it to have it or not. Do we really want flying surveillance robots all over the community, or is that going to happen anyway as we move ever closer to living in a cyber-panopticon?

If the likes of Amazon no longer use them, it’s entirely conceivable that existing courier and postage services would go broke, meaning that it was no longer economical to have a publicly-owned post office, which would put thousands of people out of work, and potentially make it impossible for smaller players that don’t have access to their own drones to compete. Not to worry, they can all get jobs with Amazon as drone technicians so they can make deliveries from a chair rather than hitting the pavement. Walking is so low-tech, after all. And why leave your house when Amazon can deliver every whim robotically?

But here’s my biggest question – how is this even a problem that needs a solution? Are there really people out there who are so frustrated by Amazon’s current speedy delivery options, that they are gagging for a drone to turn up on their doorstop within a matter of minutes? Are we so addicted to instant gratification that even an overnight option is just too darn slow?

I mean, toddlers will say “But I want it now” even though something is clearly going to take a little bit of time, like Angry Birds Star Wars II adding another whole free level to complete the ones they’ve already finished, to choose a not-at-all-random example. But don’t we grow out of that? Is patience no longer a virtue in our society, unless you’re Amazon and trying to prototype a ridiculously ambitious drone army?

I was glad to see Bill Gates pouring cold water on this bold plan. And this is a guy who knows about being overly optimistic, having backed the Zune.

I do like Gates’ idea that drones could be used in disaster-hit areas – you can imagine a fleet of robotic aircraft could swarm out in an area like the Philippines post-typhoon, rapidly getting food to people where roads have been cut off. But that is a genuine problem requiring an urgent solution – unlike, for instance, being able to get your Miley Cyrus boxed set as rapidly as the crow can fly.

Technology can do wonderful things to make our lives better, and Bezos has driven innovation in fields like e-books and e-commerce that transformed our society and economy. But in this particular instance, I very much hope that regulators cut Amazon down.

3 Responses to I hope Amazon’s drones never get off the ground

  1. Adeline Teoh (@witmol) 3 December 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    Australian textbook company Zookal is launching its drone service (inexplicably called ‘Flirtey’) next year. It’s also aiming to capture the medical delivery market.

    The benefits are much quicker and much cheaper delivery, putting Auspost prices to shame. I have a friend who owns an ecommerce business who is struggling to compete with overseas suppliers who charge nothing for postage where Auspost comes in at an $8.60 minimum for a 500g Parcel Post bag.

    I take your point about safety and privacy, but I’m guessing in some cases people will see the benefits outweigh the negatives.

  2. Christian Kent 3 December 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    Safety: Current delivery options don’t have a zero accident rate. All the Prime Air system needs is a lower failure rate than surface delivery, and then the safety argument stops being valid. Already the Google cars have a better safety record than human drivers.

    Spying: It’s nearly ten years since Google Maps changed the way we think about universal cheap aerial photography. Probably in another twenty years it will be live images instead of static. Not sure how this will change the spying argument but it won’t be the same.

    Couriers going broke: I have very little patience for this argument as I just couriered something from London to Sydney and it went via Germany and the USA, then to the wrong address, taking 6 days longer than the option of just carrying it myself. And it was less than the weight of Amazon’s air cargo. They probably should go broke.

    Saving jobs: This is the broken windows fallacy. Give more work to the machines and we can all get on with making each other coffee and street art. I’m only half joking.

    Problem that needs a solution: Here’s a very good article on “technological conservatism”; it’s something many of us have been guilty of at one time or another, but didn’t know it: http://hypercritical.co/2013/04/07/technological-conservatism

  3. Hans 7 December 2013 at 7:39 pm #

    Rest easy Dom,

    This is just another viral/guerrilla marketing campaign by amazon (helped freely by the mainstream media) much like the six or seven other companies that had the idea before them.

    A commercially available hexacopter carrying a 500g package can fly for about 10 -13 minutes (not a very big delivery area including return to base) and would cost around $800 – 1500 retail from china (need to make a lot of deliveries to recoup costs)
    Australian regulations (CASA) currently forbid autonomous flight, require licensing of operator and controller, flight logs, maintenance logs and radio operators certification for commercial use. Pilot, or spotter with ability to take over control, must maintain line of sight with aircraft at all times (CASA are very unlikely to remove these requirements when they make tens of thousands of dollars from each certificate issued).

    It may surprise some readers, but this is not new technology. I have been building and flying multirotor aircraft for nearly five years now. German brand Mikrokopter has been around for about seven years.

    If zookal launch a drone delivery service next year i’ll eat my own arse.


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