Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 11, 2013

House of Burgess: Amazon's flying delivery robots

Bezos premieres 'Amazon Prime Air'

By Rob Burgess
Tribune columnist

— In a Dec. 1 “60 Minutes” piece on CBS — charitably labeled an Amazon.com “infomercial” by Slate’s Konstantin Kakeas Dec. 2 — CEO Jeff Bezos gave Charlie Rose an exclusive look at what’s next for the company, which had $61 billion in revenue in 2012.

“These are ‘octocopters,’” said Bezos near the end of the segment, as he showed a saucer-eyed Rose a table of “autonomous” black, toddler-sized contraptions.

“These are effectively drones, but there’s no reason that they can’t be used as delivery vehicles. … Half-hour delivery, and we can carry objects, we think, up to five pounds, which covers 86 percent of the items that we deliver. … These generations of vehicles, it could be a 10-mile radius from a fulfillment center. So, in urban areas, you could actually cover very significant portions of the population.”

To illustrate the program — Amazon Prime Air — Bezos then played a demonstration video for Rose. In the clip — which now has 13 million YouTube views — a male customer uses a tablet to order a Skate Tool. He checks out by tapping on a yellow “Prime Air 30 minute delivery” button.

Cut to the warehouse, where the Skate Tool is lovingly placed into a similarly yellow box. The container is then sent gently careening down a rolling conveyor. At the end is what looks like a miniature outdoor propane grill.

Its four thin legs are now squat over the banana-colored package. It latches on to the sides of the box and proceeds to buzz out the side of the loading dock, plunging into the crisp blue sky.

Sounding like an agitated hornet swarm, we follow the accursed machine through the air and across lush green hills. Finally, it reaches the front steps of a gigantic waterfront estate.

The drone, soon to be relieved of its Skate Tool, lowers itself to the ground. The male customer waits until it leaves to exit his front door and retrieve his purchase, a young boy hovering in the doorway.

“Putting Prime Air into commercial use will take some number of years as we advance technology and wait for the necessary Federal Aviation Administration rules and regulations,” the company wrote on the project’s website. Amazon Prime as it stands now is a flat $79 per year proposition. That business model encourages customers to milk the “free” shipping.

Given that, imagine how many drones would be in the air at any given time in, say, New York City if Amazon has its druthers.

“If thousands of drones are to fly around delivering packages across cities, they must become orders of magnitude more reliable than they are,” wrote Kakeas. “Otherwise some will crash every day, and Bezos will have to hire an army of people to drive around, pick up the fallen drones, deliver the packages and refurbish the drones.”

If Amazon has any doubts about this program, it hides it well. “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today,” Amazon stated. “We hope the FAA’s rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015. We will be ready at that time.”

Amazon’s four-entry-long accompanying Frequently Asked Questions section didn’t even begin to cover my boundless concerns. The guy in the test video had a giant seaside tract for the drone to land on, but what if my neighbor ordered something? Would the drone fly down our apartment building’s hallway? What if someone shoots the drone down? What if it gets hacked? How does it know to whom to give the package? What’s stopping me from throwing a net over the drone and stealing it? And then there are natural predators to consider.

“The FAA has tracked more than 121,000 instances of bird-aircraft collisions since 1990,” wrote Nicholas Lund in Slate Thursday. “The difference for Amazon’s drones is that the birds will be chasing them. Unseen to us, the skies are checkered with fiercely defended bird territories. Open-country raptors — hawks, eagles, kites, harriers, etc. — don’t take kindly to interlopers on their hunting grounds, and frequently chase, dive-bomb, and take talons to intruders.”

I say: Birds, have at ’em.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.