Jeff Bezos tantalizes us with drone delivery

I meant to mention this yesterday, but didn’t get to it.

The first thing I saw about Amazon’s tantalizing “unveiling” of drone delivery of packages — within half an hour, we’re told! — was a piece on Slate pooh-poohing it:

In an infomercial hosted by Charlie Rose on CBS’s 60 Minutes this weekend, Amazon announced that it plans to deliver small packages via drone in the near future. Many media outlets have credulously repeated this claim, just like they did with the beer-delivering drone and the taco-delivering drone.

However, the technical, regulatory, and logistical challenges of autonomous flight in crowded American urban airspace are far more profound than Bezos allowed on TV. As he said, the FAA is now revising its rules regarding autonomous flight. The FAA roadmap is complex. But it bluntly states (on Page 33): “Autonomous operations are not permitted.” There is an exception for line-of-sight operations for small UAVs. But Bezos’ vision of autonomous delivery in a city is not, according to the FAA roadmap, in the cards in the next few years….

Well, to be fair, Bezos did tell Charlie Rose it would be a few years. (But if the writer had Slate had really wanted to mock the media’s gee-whiz, boosterish reaction, he should have commented on the breathless “making of” feature about their Amazon scoop.)

In the spirit of scoffing, I thought about writing a post headlined something like, “Why doesn’t Bezos promise us teleportation while he’s at it?”

But truly, this is pretty much of a gee-whiz idea — little flying robots gently dropping stuff off at our front doors, and NOT taking the stuff back because we’re not there to sign for it? Who couldn’t love that.

Of course, I hope my libertarian friends will now stop insisting that the private sector is the place where innovations that make our lives better originate. I mean, the government’s been using drones for years, with deadly effect. And delivering payloads WAY bigger than five pounds, baby. It just shows how lame the private sector really is that we get excited over something that’s such a “been-there, done-that” to government.

Sorry, Doug. Couldn’t resist.

Seriously, folks, this is exciting. And we communitarians must admit that the one barrier to doing this is government — that is, the FAA. On the other hand, count me among those grateful that the FAA won’t automatically approve thousands of mini-helicopters buzzing around the yards where our kids play.

Someday, we’ll have this. Just as someday, we’ll have self-driving cars — once the liability issues are worked out.

And I like that Bezos is straining at the limits, getting out there, breaking molds, challenging assumptions, yadda-yadda.

It’s stuff like this that makes me hopeful that he’ll come up with mold-breaking ideas that save the newspaper industry, now that he’s in that business. I’d love a chance to help him do it. It would be wonderful (not to mention tremendous fun) to be on the technological frontier as a part of forging the salvation of the Fourth Estate.

Maybe we could even work drones into it…

11 thoughts on “Jeff Bezos tantalizes us with drone delivery

  1. Doug Ross

    It will be the regulatory and legal aspects of this service that will either slow its implementation to a crawl or kill it entirely. Too many politicians will have to be paid off to allow it to happen. The insurance costs will be immense – imagine the first drone that crashes into a house and injures someone. When military drones screw up, there’s no recourse. Just call it “collateral damage” and move on to killing someone else.

    I don’t see this happening for one simple reason: there just aren’t enough products that people NEED within 30 minutes aside from pizza and drugs.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    So… following Doug’s “everything can be boiled down to money and public corruption” model, the barrier to implementation is simply a matter of finding the right politician to pay off.

    Which suggests that the idea can’t win on its merits, that if the FAA approves it, it will be as a result of corruption.

    Which is an argument against implementation, right?

    How about the sunny, Pollyanna version — which is that when enough of society, including transportation safety experts, is convinced the benefits of this outweigh the risks, we’ll be having half-hour delivery at home.

    And frankly, these things are light enough that they don’t pose the kind of threat that an off-course Predator does. I think I’d worry more about them smacking into people or the windshields of cars on landing and take-off. I can’t see them taking out a house.

    But I think your other objection is legit. I mean, really, what DO I need delivered in 30 minutes, since I’m allergic to pizza? I can see Amazon investing a few billion in this network, only to have people order some stuff this way for the novelty of seeing the drones take off and land on their sidewalks, then abandoning it.

    On the OTHER hand, I can remember my wife saying once, decades ago, “What are we going to do with a microwave?” Which she hasn’t said in a very long time…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      By the way, I was also dismissive of the Kindle.

      And if all you could do on one is read a book, I still would be.

      My iPad is a huge part of my life. I use it for blogging (although seldom for writing posts), social media, email (as long as the messages are short), reading newspapers and magazines (I seldom look at the print versions anymore), watching Netflix, viewing photos (I prefer the iPhone for TAKING photos), listening to music, watching “Breaking Bad” (we don’t have AMC at our house, so I bought the last season from iTunes), and pretty much everything I’ve ever used a computer for, except extended writing.

      But while I’ve downloaded quite a few books to it, I never read more than a few pages before losing interest. Regular, dead-tree, analog books are still a more inviting and enjoyable interface for me. I don’t know why that is, since I prefer the tablet to other print media.

  3. Mark Stewart

    I think of power lines, telephone lines, cable TV lines chris-crossing suburban streets; nevermind the trees and shrubs that would likely become obstacles. Then, when one of these drones does go down, who’s property does it become? Does Amazon then have to have a drone retrieval fleet (which sort of defeats the purpose, no)? In the dense urban areas where he would like to visualize such deliveries, I think of the fact that many, if not most, people live in apartments without outside access. The UPS guy has a better method to access my high-rise office as well – no widely opening window to let a drone in here.

    Then there is the whole issue of the weather – wind, rain, sleet – plus freezing temps. What good is your pizza, or drugs, if frozen or melted on arrival?

    Maybe one day we will have the sky full of drones going about there work. But in the near future and for Amazon? Pie in the sky fantasy. In the meantime, let’s just file this nonsense away with the Jetson family.

    1. Juan Caruso

      “Then, when one of these drones does go down, who’s property does it become? ” – Mark S.

      A very valid question that I had also pondered.

      Unlike the law of the sea, marine salvage ownership rules would not apply for finders. If an aircraft crashed on your property, you could even be barred from effective use of your own property for duration of the ensuing investigation.

      If a drone disappeared with last GPS coordinates over your property, it might be declared a “crime scene”. That would be a double whammy for an otherwise uninjured owner. Remember, every 1,000 pages of new federal regulations creates director-level government positions for 4.3 highly compensated lawyers, on average. — katherine Fenner might wish to apply.

      And there are considerations in Amazon’s drone scheme that have escaped most journalists and, of course, the hoi polloi:

      1. What licensing or certification will be required for either drone pilots (probably general supervisors)?
      2. What certification will be required of those providing constantly updated GPS coordinates and flight plans?
      3. Air Traffic Control and ad hoc arial construction/maintenance interactions will require more than 1,000 pages of new federal regs alone.

      Contrary to Mr. Bezos’s aseesment of year away, drone delivery is more than decades aways.
      You may ask yourself why I can be so sure, and that is a very good question with a very simple answer:

      If drones ever offered a feasible solution to mass delivery of small articles, it would not be long before we would be getting our mail that way (junk and first class). Unions would be opposed to the job losses availed. A Republichan president might consider it a good investment, but it would be a very, very, tough sell for every Democratich president, wouldn’t it?

      1. Doug Ross


        I think we will see the end of the Postal Service as we know it before we see drones making any deliveries. The population that utilizes the mail for any purpose as recipients shrinks every day and the marketing organizations will continue to cut their spending on direct mail.

        1. Juan Caruso

          Doug, I would agree with your common sense assessment that the USPS would end before drone delivery is widely implemented , but for 3 stubborn facts indicating the Postal Service actually benefits certain users more than the it does the general public:

          1- D.C. legislators still love their “congressional” franking privilege for official business and constituent bulk mails.

          2- Non profits (corporations with no shareholder accountability, a serious limitation on public records, and often huge salaries for top executives (many lawyers, by the way) enjoy reduced postal rates.

          3- Major for-profit retailers, etc. not only enjoy bulk rates for their junkmail, their powerful lobbyists (mostly lawyers) assure that Congress will maintain them.

          Are ‘Forever Stamps’ a good investment for the general public? Like you, Doug, I would not bet on it.

  4. Doug Ross

    Microwaves and Kindles are enduser tools… the drones are a part of a logistics process. They would only seem to be useful in high density population areas. Are you really going to have a drone fly from West Columbia to Blythewood to deliver a pair of sneakers?

    Might be more efficient to develop low flying hovercraft style UPS trucks that could be loaded up with many packages and then piloted by a human,

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, yeah, it’s a logistical process. But as you pointed out, the end user “product” is half-hour delivery. And I think you raise a legitimate question as to how much people would want that.

      Of course, there’s a happy medium. You know what I’ve used Amazon for the most? Buying and rebuying plastic holsters for my iPhone. I keep breaking them. If you buy one in a store (especially the Verizon store), they’re more than $30. I can order them from somewhere in East Asia for about a tenth of that.

      But it takes close to a month to get here. Which is, nowadays, kind of ridiculous.

      So you know what I do? Since one of these things breaks every few months, and it only costs $3 and change to replace one, I stay one ahead. I have one waiting for me in my closet at home. I’ll deploy that one when this one breaks, and order another.

      Anyway, something between half an hour and three or four weeks would be nice.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, this cheapskate approach has its limits.

        The holsters are just as good as the ones that cost 10 times as much (they break easily, too). But a couple of months back, I saw I could buy THREE sets of iPhone earbuds for $3 and change. They, too, took about a month to arrive.

        Alas, while they kinda work, the sound quality is pretty poor compared to the expensive ones from Apple. OK for talking on phone, not for listening to music. Also, you can tell they are made from cheaper materials (when you pick them up, the buds make an annoying, cheap clicking sound as they bump together). But if you don’t TOUCH them or try to USE them, they look like the real thing…

    2. William

      UPS announced today that they’ve also been looking into drone delivered packages. This is going to be a redneck with a shotgun’s wildest dream. Shoot a drone, get a prize.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *