Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Don’t expect Amazon’s drones anytime soon

January 18, 2014

I was a big science fiction fan when I was a kid. I loved “The Jetsons,” where just about everything tedious was done by a robot, aside from homework. I even loved the cynical flip side of “The Jetsons”—the cartoon “Futurama,” where interplanetary packages were delivered via spaceship.

I gave up the idea of having a flying car long ago, but it looks like I might be getting packages delivered to my doorstep by air. Amazon, the online retail behemoth, is not only making noises about using drones to deliver its goods, but has entered into actual first-stage testing of the concept. They call it Amazon Prime Air.

In technical terms, there are no “drones,” only “unmanned aircraft.” Unmanned vehicles actually go back further in aviation history than manned aircraft, with the first recorded event I know of dating to 1849 when the Austrian military sent balloons with explosives into Venice.

Millions of Americans might remember flying radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters as a hobby. Amazon’s drones, designed as four-rotor helicopters, are barely bigger than those toys. The company says its drones can carry up to five pounds of payload in a radius of 10 miles.

Amazon has been ready to test the system for quite some time, but it wasn’t until late December that the Federal Aviation Administration finally authorized the tests through federally controlled airspace. Amazon’s drones will probably have to operate above the envelope where remote-controlled hobby aircraft fly. Civilians can usually operate unmanned aircraft only under 400 feet and within line of sight, while delivery drones will need to operate automatically.

To get Prime Air off the ground, Amazon needed an FAA special certification, which was granted in December. The FAA approved testing at six locations, ranging from Alaska to Virginia, until at least 2017. Amazon is perhaps the most high-profile organization to ask the FAA for a special certification, but far from the only one. More than 80 other entities have done so. Most of them are law enforcement agencies or universities doing research.

Amazon is being coy about the technical and financial details of its plan. The retail giant has operated largely at break-even or a loss for years, so it’s unlikely that it plans to get rapid payback from its new venture.

There is a YouTube video from Amazon that shows merchandise from one of its warehouses being loaded into a snap-on cargo carrier, sent down a conveyor, locked into a drone, and the package being whisked into the sky by a quadrocopter that’s hardly bigger than a small terrier. The drone travels high over a pristine landscape before finally delicately depositing the whole cargo carrier on the buyer’s doorstep and whirring away. But that’s about the limit of the public explanation.

For those who understand technology and business, the video sparks more suspicion than awe. Drones of this size and type are rather delicate beasts that won’t stand much rough handling, which they must endure if they’re to fly through rain, sleet, dust or a gauntlet of drunken shotgun owners.

There are many questions yet to be answered.

If a drone falters and crashes mid-flight, how will anyone know? Will Amazon replace merchandise that mysteriously never arrives? How will it evade thieves? How will it reliably find doorsteps instead of rooftops or swimming pools, when even the best GPS device can occasionally send its owner into cornfields or rivers?

How does Amazon plan to get the cargo bins back, or are they disposable, adding to the cost? Can the drone hurt pets or small children if it lands slightly off-target or the inquisitive child runs into the rotors? How will the drone be recharged, and how long will it take? Can Amazon even retrieve downed units?

And can the system be made profitable when good drones cost several thousand dollars to buy and consume money by the bucketful in maintenance?

These questions and more have been buzzing since Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, announced Prime Air. I’m afraid I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that so many others have reached: It’s a massive publicity stunt with little chance of turning a buck.

I might be wrong and, for the sake of my futuristic dreams, I hope I am. But the financial and technical obstacles seem too large to permit any profit.

Google can get away with doing such massively expensive stunts because it’s also massively profitable. Not so Amazon. This ongoing PR effort might get Amazon good press, but I can’t see it ending with tens of thousands of quadrocopters delivering DVDs like swarms of large, benevolent locusts.

I’ve been disappointed too many times by prognosticators who foretold of wonders that never made an appearance. In spite of my own excitement, I can’t see UPS or FedEx being knocked off their perch anytime soon.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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