My Goodness the Gnats Are Big This Year!

Amazon.com drone delivery
Photo via Associated Press

It seems the world is a-buzz (sorry) with the news that Jeff Bezos, head honcho at Amazon.com, spilled on 60 Minutes last Sunday (Dec 1, 2013) about Amazon moving into the use of flying drones to deliver packages.  The resulting social media chatter is not decisively for or against this move.  Some just make fun of the idea: asking when drone hunting season opens or speculating about getting dinner by knocking down a pizza drone.  But then some of the jokes may not be without some truth.

Low-Down On Delivery Drones

Bezos is, however, not the first to try this delivery method.  A Domino’s Pizza franchise in the United Kingdom released a test flight video in June 2013 of the “DomiCopter,” an RC drone being used to deliver hot pizza.  “We think it’s cool that places like Amazon are exploring the concept,” says Domino’s spokesman Chris Brandon. “We’d be surprised if the FAA ever let this ‘fly’ in the States — but we will surely stay tuned to see where this all goes.”3

A textbook rental company in Sydney Australia, Zookal, has been delivering textbooks via autonomous drone since mid-October, 2013.  They say it is working out well for them and claim this is the future of small package delivery.

Another company, SF Express has been testing drone delivery in Dongguan China, but has yet to put the system into commercial practice, and they’re not talking about it.

Bezo’s drones will be similar to the Flirty drone used by Zookal: autonomous (meaning they fly themselves to a pre-determined destination via GPS coordinates) not flown by a remote pilot.  Recipients can track the drones’ progress via a smartphone app.  The drones carry no cameras, so they cannot spy on anyone, but they are equipped with a collision-avoidance system in order to avoid trouble with trees, towers, birds, wires, high winds, other drones, etc.

Is Drone-Tech Up To the Challenge?

Unmanned flying vehicles (UFV) have been in the air for quite some time.  Most are simply radio controlled with a controller similar to those used in RC model planes for decades.  Some are of the remote-piloted variety where cameras in the UFV, and some basic instruments, send signals to the pilot who wears a virtual reality visor that displays the crafts view, altitude, and attitude.  These have been used extensively by the military, and recently for commercial purposes by surveyors, geologists, search and rescue teams and video artists.  Some of these folks have gotten themselves into hot water with the FAA and other government agencies.9

Flirty has proven that the autonomous UFV can and does work well enough to make this system viable.  So the tech is not what’s standing in Bezos’ way.

Drone Regulation

Part of what makes all this possible for Zookal is that the Australian government passed laws years ago that allowed UFVs for commercial use, as long as they honor certain safety factors like staying away from airports.  They paved the way for this technology to develop, and it has.

The American FAA passed laws in 2007 prohibiting the use of drones in any commercial enterprise.  This is Amazon’s biggest hurdle at the moment.

The FAA is slowly (perhaps reluctantly) grinding toward guidelines on commercial drone use.  In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to grant drones access to U.S. skies by September 2015.  But that agency has already missed several key deadlines and has said the process will take longer than Congress expects.5

The Drone Downside

There are many factors being argued over as reasons why civilian drones should never fly American skies… or at least be severely restricted in their access.

  • The first objection by the Government is aviation safety.  They fear drones will prove a hazard to regular air traffic and cause more crashes of small aircraft.
  • The Feds also site the potential use of drones in terrorist attacks.
  • Worries about delivery drone failure while en route and the possibility of a 50+ pound machine falling onto pedestrians, vehicles or homes below.
  • Even if the thing suffers no failure, is it smart to land a machine with 8 whirling blades on front porches of the most litigious society on the planet?
  • Will flying delivery-bots give rise to a new form of looting through bot-jacking?
  • Will the noise of these giant gnats buzzing around add one more annoyance to modern life?

 The Drone Upside

  • Having a flying drone drop my order on the front porch would be just so super geeky-cool.
  • Having an item delivered within 60 minutes of placing the order could be a wonderful advantage.
  • Using battery powered UFVs for a significant percentage of deliveries could reduce emissions from gasoline and diesel powered delivery trucks.

If Anybody Can Do It…

If anyone can actually wrangle the FAA into allowing such a thing to occur in the USA, it will be the man who, in 1995, began an on-line book store in a garage in Seattle and has made it into world’s largest online retailer of practically everything.  Amazon.com spent 2.9 billion dollars in shipping expenses last year, and they have been one of the most pro-active companies when it comes to improving the customer shopping experience.

What Say You?

Do the benefits outweigh the problems?  If this were available to you today, would you use the service, or be more tempted to do your Christmas shopping by shooting down drones?  Will flying delivery trucks lead to Skynet?  Technology entrepreneur and futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that “Technology has always been a double edged sword.  Fire kept us warm and cooked our food but also was used to burn down our villages.”5

I’d like to hear what you have to say.

Sources & More Info:

  1. Flirty Video
  2. PandoDaily
  3. WOOD TV Channel 8, Grand Rapids
  4. MSN Money.com video
  5. MSN Money.com article
  6. Twitter
  7. Facebook
  8. NBC News DomiCopter vid
  9. Mashable: Drones vs. Government
  10. Amazon drones Will Deliver Babies Next’
  11. Groupn says “No!” to Drones: prefers catapults
  12. FAA Shuts Down Beer-Delivery Drone | CNS News

One thought on “My Goodness the Gnats Are Big This Year!”

  1. Hi AD,

    Drones for delivery of negligible items… Let me put it in plain cowboyese: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…. The geekocracy is pushing harder and harder to replace humans for every imaginable task. This one is not “innovative”, even if it migfht mean even more Bucks for Bezos. It’s just another stupid can-do idea that might well make it to the implementation stage.

    KLike so much tech stuff nowadays, it is no better, no more efficient than things 20 years ago. Really not. Some tech is OK (I just had a hernia op with laparoscopy, 2 days later I was walking around), this drone idea, like Amazon in general, has so many downsides I can’t even begin listing them all. But “jobkiller” is at the top.

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