Amazon Air and Our New World of Drones

Amazon plans to take over the world with flying barbecue grills.

The story about Jeff Bezos unveiling a new drone-based delivery system made big headlines this weekend after it was revealed in a surprise 60 Minutes segment. Here’s what it will look like:

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It’s neat, but is it real? I wouldn’t say I’m skeptical about it. Betting against Bezos usually isn’t wise. They’ve made their mistakes, but they have enough talent, muscle, money, and business sense to warrant some confidence even in a “no way, never, no-how” proposal like this.

But I do have questions. For instance:

These are, as of now, unpiloted drones, meaning they rely on GPS data. Every GPS lists my house two houses away from where it actually is. The navigation tech just isn’t there yet. In five years–the current timeline for implementation of Amazon Air–it may be.

The navigation software will need to be incredible, with top-notch collision avoidance and the ability to adjust and correct in changing weather conditions and react to crowds. I can’t imagine one of them navigating the trees and wires on my heavily-wooded street, or a busy city street, without assistance. It’s not enough to say “go to point A and land.” Point A may be under dense cover. And are they just going to drop stuff in the middle of the lawn? What about in cities? No one wants their merchandise left out on a New York door stoop.

The entire delivery circuit can’t be handled by GPS alone. It seems inevitable that a human pilot will have to take over at the end in order to get the package in the right spot on the property and make sure it’s a safe area. Who will certify and train the pilots?

What happens when a drone malfunctions and hits or even kills someone, or causes damage. Self-driving cars are already a reality, but they’re being kept off the street because no one can iron out the liability issue.

Drones in the airspace are an issue yet to resolved by FAA. Their use by hobbyists  is already coming under scrutiny, and their use by commercial entities will need to be resolved, probably by new law. In short, Amazon is going to push forward the day of drone reckoning in which the government takes control of the skies for all sizes of aircraft. This was inevitable, and I don’t see it being resolved satisfactorily without congressional action.

In some parts of the country, small flying objects zooming across the horizon are called “skeet.” I see new sport on the horizon: drone hunting. Also: drone catching. As soon as it lands, throw a net over that sucker!

A lot of this can be made to work, and I think if anyone can cut through the government red tape and clear the tech hurdles, it’s probably Amazon. Once they blaze the trail, it will change the way many things are done. FedEx and UPS will follow suit. The Postal Service will attempt to follow suit. In time, individuals will be running drones to borrow a cup of sugar or take that forgotten homework to school.

Of course, that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, you have the ease with which a fleet of drones can coordinate delivery of bombs. They won’t need to hijack our planes: the can just plow drones into our buildings and monuments. Heck, crash one into the Turnpike at rush hour and you’ll cause a multicar pileup. The potential is frightening, and it now seems almost inevitable that drone warfare will come to America.

This is all fairly far afield of Amazon’s idea of dropping a new book on my front porch, but any move into a new technology raises new considerations and creates new realities.

None of it is really a response to a genuine need. We already consume too much: do we need to consume it at a faster pace? Is the idea of planning ahead for a purchase and then waiting such a horrible thing? I have Amazon Prime. I get almost anything I want in two days. That’s fast enough. The main effect of faster delivery will be to drive the final stake into the heart of brick and mortar stores, and accelerate our already unhealthy obsession with things.


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.