Prime Air: For real, or trolling the Internet for Cyber Monday?

posted at 8:41 am on December 2, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos promised everyone a big surprise in his 60 Minutes interview yesterday, but almost no one predicted that Bezos would announce the creation of a Drone Air Force for 30-minute deliveries on orders.  But just how realistic is this? CBS anchor Charlie Rose seemed to buy into it:

Color me skeptical on this, too. First, just how many orders are delivered within 30 minutes drone flight of a fulfillment center? I live in a top 20 metropolitan center, and my Amazon orders almost all come from somewhere else via UPS.  Drones avoid traffic but don’t travel all that much faster than cars do, so a 30-minute radius is not going to be far from a warehouse. Operating a drone air force for such a small slice of the market doesn’t sound like a brilliant financial move, not even for a man who just bought the Washington Post. (Maybe drone delivery of the morning edition makes some sense, though.)

And that’s just the customer end. If this takes place on any scale, the FAA would have fits over the air traffic.  It’s one thing to have a few drones in the air as a hobbyist, but it’s another thing entirely to have an industrial air force flying over houses, traffic, and electrical lines, just to name a few potential problems.  GPS coordinates are getting better at pinpointing locations, but drones won’t be able to pinpoint a porch on automated runs, nor are they going to ring doorbells to announce drops, either.

Plus … why is this necessary, anyway? If customers need something in 30 minutes in the dense urban areas that this would service, they go to a store to buy it. That may not be practical in exurbs or rural areas, but the drones won’t be flying there, anyway.

This sounds more like a way to generate Amazon buzz on Cyber Monday than a serious idea. But who knows? I was pretty skeptical about the government’s crazy idea to set up a website to force Americans to use to buy health insurance, and look how wrong I was about that. Er …

What do you think? Take the poll:

 


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I want two six packs of Peroni, stat!

BacaDog on December 2, 2013 at 8:44 AM

These things would be getting popped left and right. See an Amazon drone overhead carrying a big package, why not try to bring it down with a supersonic pellet or two and see what’s in the box.

Bishop on December 2, 2013 at 8:44 AM

Do they ring the doorbell when they drop off?

NotCoach on December 2, 2013 at 8:47 AM

These things would be getting popped left and right. See an Amazon drone overhead carrying a big package, why not try to bring it down with a supersonic pellet or two and see what’s in the box.

Bishop on December 2, 2013 at 8:44 AM

I use non-lethal skeet shooters for my drone hunting.

NotCoach on December 2, 2013 at 8:47 AM

Bezos is just thinking ahead. He’s eventually going to sub-contract his drone fleet to the IPAB, and deliver pain pills (and worse) along with your copy of 1984.

AZCoyote on December 2, 2013 at 8:48 AM

Note that Besos said the CIA is a big Amazon customer. You Tea Baggers are gonna have drones spying on your ant-govt cabal, followed by a mini-Hellfire missile attack. Of course any such drone attack will need to be rubber stamped, I mean authorized, by your local DNC Death Panel chairperson.

philw1776 on December 2, 2013 at 8:49 AM

people will be stealing them if they actually try.

dmacleo on December 2, 2013 at 8:51 AM

I live near an Amazon Fulfillment center (read: GIANT climate controlled warehouse)….I’m totally ordering a bag on 1/4-20 bolts and split-ring washers to see if I can get a drone to land on my roof!!

If Bezos’ really wants to drum up business – make an Amazon App that allows the customer to fly the drone themselves!!!

powerpickle on December 2, 2013 at 8:51 AM

Perhaps we could all send “thank you” presents to a certain, non-descriptively colored house in Washington, DC.

As a joke, NSA!

rbj on December 2, 2013 at 8:52 AM

I would not bet against Bezos.Many have tried/all have failed.

gerrym51 on December 2, 2013 at 8:52 AM

‘drone deliveries’ = public skeet shootin

Katfish on December 2, 2013 at 8:53 AM

Not practical but it would be interesting to work out the the logistics of pulling it off. I would imagine there would have to be “drop zones” and delivery from those points by a bike or pedestrian courier.

HotAirian on December 2, 2013 at 8:54 AM

Not original

blammm on December 2, 2013 at 8:55 AM

If this was even kind of close to reality there would have been much more information about lifting capacity, battery life/recharge times and delivery confirmation software.

Fanciful joke.

cozmo on December 2, 2013 at 8:57 AM

Not original

blammm on December 2, 2013 at 8:55 AM

Did that beat the Domino’s pizza delivery drone?

cozmo on December 2, 2013 at 8:58 AM

Damn, I hope I didn’t just order an AGM-88. I wanted a blu-ray player…

Kraken on December 2, 2013 at 8:58 AM

I’m ordering a new refrigerator as soon as these things go live.

BKeyser on December 2, 2013 at 8:59 AM

April fools! Oh wait it is only December. It’s a marketing ploy for cyber Monday.

simkeith on December 2, 2013 at 8:59 AM

How about making its first mission to transport healthcare.gov to the Naval shipyard to serve as a boat anchor.

hillsoftx on December 2, 2013 at 9:00 AM

These things would be getting popped left and right. See an Amazon drone overhead carrying a big package, why not try to bring it down with a supersonic pellet or two and see what’s in the box.

Bishop on December 2, 2013 at 8:44 AM

Why wouldn’t Barnes & Nobel send out armed drones to take them out of the sky? We’d have a recreation of the Battle of Britain over the skies of America.

Happy Nomad on December 2, 2013 at 9:01 AM

This won’t happen – it’s much too dangerous.

Pork-Chop on December 2, 2013 at 9:02 AM

I’m guessing if the technology is developed, it will be for something other than Amazon books. Like take-out food.

That being said, I don’t see authorities all that thrilled with the idea of drones flying all over the place. Especially near the no-fly zones here in DC.

Happy Nomad on December 2, 2013 at 9:07 AM

It’s either a joke or PR BS. Here’s why:

1) commercial use of unmanned flying things is currently illegal
2) *any* use of unmanned flying things legally requires line-of-sight to the operator
3) quadrotors simply aren’t fast enough (if were autonomous planes, on the other hand….)
4) quadrotors don’t have the range (see comment about planes above)
5) quadrotors don’t have the payload capacity (see planes comment)

Mohonri on December 2, 2013 at 9:09 AM

Do they ring the doorbell when they drop off?

NotCoach on December 2, 2013 at 8:47 AM

They could send you a text message.

Dasher on December 2, 2013 at 9:10 AM

Meanwhile, the US Post Office’s delivery date on my last package was off by two days. Gee, I wonder what’s the difference between Amazon and the Post Office.

Kafir on December 2, 2013 at 9:12 AM

CBS anchor Charlie Rose seemed to buy into it:

I watched 60 Minutes for the first time in 25 years to see this and the Capitol Dome story. If Charlie and Scott’s below-average-IQ leading questions are an indication of what draws an audience, we are worse off than I thought.

egmont on December 2, 2013 at 9:14 AM

I’m not sure why you’re so down on the idea. As he said in the piece, 80% of all their orders fit under the 5 pound threshold needed to use the drones, and they are building more distribution centers. I would assume a lot of customers live within the drone zone of a dc, too.

Plus, this is private sector innovation at it’s finest, companies throwing wild ideas up against the wall to see what sticks. It’s years away from being implemented, but in the interim they can test it out and see how practical it might be. Nothing wrong with that, and more power to them if they can pull it off.

changer1701 on December 2, 2013 at 9:17 AM

Viral marketing.

Murphy9 on December 2, 2013 at 9:21 AM

Wait until one of the things malfunctions, crashes into a car, causing a wreck that kills mom and her kids or, worse in NFL terms, gives one of the kids a concussion. Game over.

TXUS on December 2, 2013 at 9:28 AM

The Capitol Dome story is way more deserving of a front page post. My jaw dropped when they opened the door and were standing on the dome.

joekenha on December 2, 2013 at 9:29 AM

This publicity stunt was already used. This isn’t something original from Amazon. Dominoes Pizza created a “viral” ad doing this exact same this summer.

ButterflyDragon on December 2, 2013 at 9:38 AM

Did that beat the Domino’s pizza delivery drone?

cozmo on December 2, 2013 at 8:58 AM

Tough to tell…
The media reports for Domino’s say that they were testing in June 2013.
The media reports for the dry cleaners say that they were actually using drones for deliveries in July 2013.

blammm on December 2, 2013 at 9:47 AM

Imagine the fun if only a 1/2 million ordered a dozen eggs to 1600 Pennsylvania…

DanMan on December 2, 2013 at 9:49 AM

I’m guessing if the technology is developed, it will be for something other than Amazon books. Like take-out food.

Happy Nomad on December 2, 2013 at 9:07 AM

This is my thought, as well. Chinese delivered by drone. Pizza, too – you make the drone square so it holds the pizza boxes inside and keeps them warm. The real question is how many of them would you need? You normally have one driver make multiple deliveries, but that probably wouldn’t work for a drone.

As to finding the house, you absolutely could do that with GPS – if your customer knows their GPS coordinates. Otherwise, you do it the same way my current delivery guy does – drive around lost until I call wanting to know where the heck my pizza is, then I explain how to get to my place.

I would use what we always called “civilian IFR” in the military community: I Follow Roads. Fly the things 20-25′ in the air down the roads. The big advantage here is you wouldn’t have to wait at the drawbridges like a car would.

GWB on December 2, 2013 at 9:49 AM

Meh. I live about 10 minutes from an Amazon shipping center and my packages ALWAYS come from Arizona or Kentucky. They had talked about letting locals pick up their packages within an hour of ordering, but I’ve yet to have an order fulfilled at our local center.

The drone thing is a cool idea, but I don’t see it happening.

robblefarian on December 2, 2013 at 9:49 AM

Happy Nomad on December 2, 2013 at 9:01 AM

I think this has the makings of a feature short written all over it! :)

GWB on December 2, 2013 at 9:53 AM

Why wouldn’t Barnes & Nobel send out armed drones to take them out of the sky? We’d have a recreation of the Battle of Britain over the skies of America.

Happy Nomad on December 2, 2013 at 9:01 AM

THAT would be pretty sweet.

Bishop on December 2, 2013 at 9:57 AM

Let’s ask Arthur Carlson.

Steve Eggleston on December 2, 2013 at 9:58 AM

How is it going to find the right address? GPS doesn’t pinpoint a door and maps are way off. My address is shown about a 1/4 mile from my house. I guess if you op in for drone delivery you may have to submit an exact GPS location to Amazon. I guess these drones would also have to be 100% autonomous because it would be stupid to send a “pilot” along with the drone. It’s also a bad idea form a logistics point of view. The drone can only deliver a single package to a location within a limited range. It has to fly back and forth for each delivery which takes a lot of time. I can’t imagine having thousands of these drones buzzing around a city making deliveries. The cost in lost packages, drone loss and maintenance would be fairly high I would expect.

Dr. Frank Enstine on December 2, 2013 at 10:10 AM

Do they ring the doorbell when they drop off?

NotCoach on December 2, 2013 at 8:47 AM

They leave THIS message slip on your door if you’re not home…

JetBoy on December 2, 2013 at 10:32 AM

I think it would be shortsighted to be too skeptical of Bezos. Ten years ago would you have believed he’d be offering unlimited 2nd day delivery and a great streaming service for 22 cents a day?

The thing about these copters is they’re a one-time cost (yeah, yeah, maintenance) that then operate at a near zero marginal cost. Every other delivery mechanism they have is highly variable. One can reasonably assume that drones will become cheaper, ranges and payloads will increase, and other than the cost of the device itself there are very few marginal costs to deliver (fuel is minimal, no operator, etc).

Will they be delivering my new desktop computer that way? No, not likely. But the memory chip I order for it? Sure.

As to the locations, Google Earth is already capable of recognizing an address number on my front porch and is using CAPTCHA to translate it into numbers. It only takes a one-time human scan of an overhead pitcure to pinpoint the precise drop-off location of a porch/garage/front step. I’ve been in my home for 7 years and my porch hasn’t moved once.

SoRight on December 2, 2013 at 10:33 AM

Dr. Frank Enstine on December 2, 2013 at 10:10 AM

Ah, you’re just being a party-pooper. C’mon, Mr Cloud, let Mr Sunshine come out and play! I mean, hey! what could possibly go wrong?

Here’s a thought…. It wouldn’t work with the current drone designs, but…. How about a one-way design? You build it into the package? Then you make it easily recyclable, with a return label included in the box?

GWB on December 2, 2013 at 10:34 AM

The phrase is “outside the box thinking” not “out of the box thinking.”

Warner Todd Huston on December 2, 2013 at 10:59 AM

Great idea… until the first one gets sucked into the jet engine of an airliner because it flew within restricted airspace, and kills a 100 people resulting in 100′s of millions of dollars in lawsuits. Does anyone else thinks Bezos has a screw loose?

dominigan on December 2, 2013 at 11:32 AM

I don’t see a technological solution which avoids dedicating a live operator to each drone. If a live operator is required to monitor each delivery, UPS and FEDEX offer far superior solutions…and RIGHT NOW!

Without a live operator, a company using drone delivery would face the real problem of collision with other live and dead objects, and thus virtually unlimited liability.

landlines on December 2, 2013 at 11:59 AM

Imagine the fun if only a 1/2 million ordered a dozen eggs to 1600 Pennsylvania…

DanMan on December 2, 2013 at 9:49 AM

I’m IN!!!

Thanks for brightening my day!

…still imagining….

landlines on December 2, 2013 at 12:06 PM

government is now in the process of establishing rules.probably will only be allowed certain heights and not around areas of takeoff/landings airports. It will happen someday-maybe not in 5 years but i can see it 20 years.

birds fly in to planes and that does not cause us not to use planes.

gerrym51 on December 2, 2013 at 12:10 PM

I’m not sure why you’re so down on the idea. As he said in the piece, 80% of all their orders fit under the 5 pound threshold needed to use the drones, and they are building more distribution centers. I would assume a lot of customers live within the drone zone of a dc, too.

Plus, this is private sector innovation at it’s finest, companies throwing wild ideas up against the wall to see what sticks. It’s years away from being implemented, but in the interim they can test it out and see how practical it might be. Nothing wrong with that, and more power to them if they can pull it off.

changer1701 on December 2, 2013 at 9:17 AM

The world is full of closed bookstores once owned by booksellers who underestimated Jeff Bezos. As a bookseller whose bookstore is still alive and kicking, I take Bezos very, very seriously.

I see this as a “cherry picking” operation rather than a mass market one. The people wealthy enough and impatient enough to pay the hefty charge for this delivery service will mostly live in large urban areas close enough to a fulfillment center to make the service workable. Ol’ Farmer Jim out in the hinterlands will refuse to pay; he’ll wait the extra couple of days if waiting keeps the delivery charges lower.

As for directing the drone to the proper address, the customer will probably have a homing beacon of some type or another. Finalizing the order will trigger the beacon or GPS thingy to begin broadcasting in 15 to 20 minutes and the drone will lock on to that signal. Controlling the drone in the air and steering it through traffic? The drone’s onboard chip will take care of that.

No, if anyone can make this thing work, it’s Jeff Bezos.

catsandbooks on December 2, 2013 at 3:08 PM

Are they gonna have big, lighted signs on them that say “Don’t shoot, I’m from AMAZON” on them?

BobMbx on December 2, 2013 at 4:30 PM

Maybe this is a dumb question but are drones sidelined by certain weather conditions?

jix on December 2, 2013 at 4:51 PM

Many many issues make this a PR poke, not serious.

Civilian GPS is almost good enough unaided, but not really good enough. Fine, embed something like Google Earth to pull satellite photos of the correct address. Now the drone can get to the right location on the right street.

Then it has to land. It needs an autonomous method of ensuring an LZ clear of injury-prone fauna before descending. It must also have a fool-proof system to navigate power and telephone cables.

It is possible to fly an RC craft via cellphone signal, so no worries about transmitter distance, as long as the cell signal is valid. The drone would need a cut-in automatic fly-home program contingent upon signal loss.

As has already been mentioned, out-of-sight flying of any remote craft is illegal in all population centers, and completely autonomous flying moreso.

This is without even considering the validation of receipt by addressed party. You want a human to approach a vehicle with propellers to sign a virtual clipboard? That’s a pile of lawsuits waiting to happen.

The generic tech for this idea exists, but many other things need to advance before it is a viable business activity.

Freelancer on December 2, 2013 at 7:42 PM