Look, It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's ... An Amazon Drone!
That’s the stuff of a sci-fi trailer, right? About a movie where the Elite Consumer Class spends its days nibbling Winter Black French Truffles and ordering the latest gewgaws while breadlines run around the block, populated with gaunt UPS, FedEx and Postal Service drivers?
“I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos told Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” last night, although there was no actual talk of unemployed delivery people. The peek at an airborne fleet of the short-term future was part of the show’s far-reaching look inside the Amazon operation — from a distribution center the size of more than 20 football fields to Bezos’ observation that the “Internet is disrupting every media industry” and that “people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy.”
The “Amazon Air” scenario could be commonplace within five years, Bezo told Rose. And as obvious as it may seem 12 hours or so after the broadcast — we’re sending civilians to outer space and a satellite has left our solar system, after all — many of the headlines out there this morning are of the “No Joke” variety.
“Just when you thought the technology industry couldn't get any stranger, the latest idea from the retail giant is to offer an audacious delivery-by-drone service,” writes ZDNet’s Zack Whittaker.
Footage released yesterday on YouTube follows the purchase of a skateboarding tool from a user’s Kindle through its selection — by apparently human hands! — from the shelves of a massive warehouse to its placement in a yellow, hard-plastic box. After a short trip down a conveyor belt, the tentacles of an “unmanned aerial vehicle” grab the ridged box like a raptor grabbing its prey and off it flies into the yonder before descending in a suburban yard to the delight of a dad and his son.
“It won’t work for everything; you know, we’re not gonna deliver kayaks or table saws this way,” Bezos told Rose, pointing out that about 86% of Amazon’s orders are under-five-pound limit of the drones being tested. And, he was eager to add, they are friendly to the environment. “These are electric motors, so this is all electric; it’s very green, it’s better than driving trucks around.”
Indeed, “one day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today,” according to an answer to a FAQ on an Amazon Prime Air landing page, which explains that the FAA is working on rules for such devices that “will prioritize public safety.” Amazon “hopes” those rules will be in place by 2015 and says “we will be ready at that time.”
Unlike military drones with pilots in bunkers thousands of miles away from the target, the Amazon vehicles are “autonomous,” reaching their destinations based on the GPS coordinates punched into their guidance system.
“It's the latest bold bet by Amazon, which has been credited with revolutionizing the way people shop online,” points out Andrea Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Already known for free, two-day delivery via its popular Amazon Prime membership program, the company has lately been experimenting with same-day delivery; it has also expanded its grocery delivery offerings and, most recently, announced that it was teaming with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays.”
It all made for great TV theater, as Variety’s Brian Steinberg indicates, calling the revelation “an eyebrow-raising maneuver that put the future on display while audiences were waiting for “The Amazing Race” and “The Good Wife.”
“While there's no question he is a driven businessman, similar to visionaries such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, he seems to legitimately get excited by the power of what his products can do, not just by the revenue they generate,” Topolsky wrote in September after spending some time jawing with Bezos about the company’s new tablets and other ventures. “Compared to the stodgy, dispassionate executives that sit at the helm of many of his competitors, it makes an impression. And it's infectious.”
As is laughter. As is a sky filled with drones buzzing about like a plague of locusts. It all depends on your perspective.