Monday, December 2, 2013

Thoughts on Amazon's "drone" announcement

NewImageI’ve seen a few pieces on Jeff Bezos’s announcement that Amazon intends to use “drones” (aka UAVs) for package delivery. (See the link here for one such article.)

At first I thought this was a piece from The Onion; frankly, I’ll be surprised if this really ends up happening. First of all, I’m thinking about the shear quantity of UAVs that will be required for something like this to work — and, consequently, the number of UAV operators Amazon will have to employ to bring it off. Somewhat contrary to their name, “unmanned aerial vehicles” are only un-manned in the vehicle itself; there is someone, somewhere, flying the thing. I suppose it is conceivable to program their routes to a degree, but the infrastructure for this is a long way off (if it is even possible). Let me elaborate a bit...

In order to program one UAV to go from point A to point B completely un-manned, the UAV itself would have to have very accurate GPS technology aboard, along with probably an altimeter and some other sensors to ensure that it doesn't crash-land. It would also have to be part of a well-established network that not only tracks that UAV, but also all of the others that are cleared to fly in that particular air-space. In other words, think of the work that the flight controllers currently do to make sure that planes don't crash into each other, and imagine trying to automate that entirely. Otherwise, we have fifty or hundred-pound UAVs crashing into each other and falling to the ground (or on top of your car, your house, or your kid).

Now, add to that the enormity of the number of UAVs that it would take to deliver Amazon's packages — even just the Prime ones, or even a subset of those. How many per day would that be? And would there be a limit to which items Amazon could deliver — or are they going to have some HUGE UAVs for the heavier stuff?

Third, I can see the Federal Aviation Administration having a lot to say about whether Amazon's program can actually take off (pun intended). I have a couple of friends who work pretty closely with UAVs, and a few others who are pilots; to hear them tell it, there's a long way to go before the kind of airspace clearance this would require will be available for general civilian use.

So Amazon has to get past the following obstacles:
  • Acquire a huge number of UAVs and equip their distribution centers to use them
  • Either (a) hire a ton of UAV pilots as, essentially, a team of Doug Heffernans — and are there even that many UAV pilots available? Or will Amazon pay for their training?
  • OR, (b) build a massive computerized system that will allow all of those hundreds thousands of UAVs to operate fully-unmanned; AND retrofit the UAVs to run on that system flawlessly
  • Only THEN can they appeal to the FAA for approval, which will cost them millions in lobbying money to get

And Bezos thinks they're going to do all of that by 2015?


  1. I, too, think this is a very long way from feasibility, what is more shocking to me, though, is the way in which until only recently civilian drones of any kind were feared on civil rights grounds, even when used by the police. For such a story to be published, it seems to mean that the future existence of drones in our skies is more or less assumed to be a fait accompli. So, not only will the police have the drones, but companies and paparazzi (I am actually surprised that they do not use them already, scofflaws that they are).

    1. Exactly — why is this such a foregone conclusion? And to what end?

      If people think their privacy is limited now, just wait...