If the story on Amazon drones hadn’t aired on TV’s deadpan-serious 60 Minutes, it would have been easy to assume Sunday’s announcement from Amazon.com (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos was something cooked up by spoof site The Onion, or perhaps one of Google’s (GOOG) now-predictable April Fools’ Day news releases.
It wasn’t a joke, though.
In a development that was once something only hypothesized in the cartoon/fantasy world of The Jetsons, Bezos says the company is developing airborne Amazon drones to deliver many of the online-retailer’s goods to its paying customers.
That’s right. Amazon feels it’s only a matter of time — and not even much of it — before card-table-sized octocopters will be dropping off purchases right at your doorstep. Once the delivery is made, the drone will fly back to its distribution center to pick up and deliver the next payload.
Amazon drones are a completely ridiculous and unworkable idea, of course, and will (no pun intended) never get off the ground anytime in our lifetimes.
Still, it’s fun to see someone of Jeff Bezos’ ilk have as much faith as he has that science fiction is becoming scientific fact.
The response to the announcement has been what you might expect; half of the public loves the premise, while the other half is proverbially rolling their eyes. What’s interesting is that even the folks who love the idea don’t actually seem to think it’s going to be become a reality anytime soon … despite Bezos’ optimism.
Thing is, their intuition might be spot-on.
Here are the three biggest reasons Amazon drones are going to be grounded before ever taking flight.
#1: The coverage areas for Amazon drones are inherently full of airborne hazards.
It wasn’t one of the underscored details of the 60 Minutes interview, but the proposed battery-operated drone that Amazon is working on only has an operating range of about 10 miles from its takeoff point; the service will only be available in fairly metropolitan areas near an Amazon hub.
It’s not really a customer service problem, as nobody expects the company to lose money just to offer the delivery option in rural areas. Besides, rollouts of all sorts tend to begin in metropolitan areas and work their way outward.
No, the problem with populous areas — where the service makes fiscal sense — is that these areas can be loaded with tall buildings, power lines, cranes, birds and a million other things that could (literally) get in the way. And that’s partially why …
#2: Any in-flight failure will turn into a disaster.
While it would be inaccurate to say in-flight failures are common for these electric octocopters, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say failures do happen from time to time. And, unlike failures in airplanes where the plane at least has a shot at being glided to safety, a failure on a couple (or more) of the delivery drones’ eight rotors means a five-pound package — in addition to the weight of the drone itself — becomes a rock falling out of the sky.
What happens when — not if — it lands in the middle of a busy road, or worse, lands on a moving car?
It’s a remote possibility, but so are lighting strikes, and those kill about 50 people per year. Of course, lightning has the benefit of being an uncontrollable product of nature.
Were there no alternative, it might be a case where the public simply had to suck it up and deal with the risks. However, with a trio of safe, viable delivery-to-door services readily available though, one Amazon drone-driven death is bound to be viewed as one too many.
#3: When it’s all said and done, autonomous drones can’t do complex jobs, or adapt, as well as people.
Litmus test: Would you ever fly in an airplane that didn’t have a pilot on board, but instead was flown wheels-up to wheels-down by a real-live person?
Some people would say “yes,” but most people know the value of a real pilot (or pilots) is in being there to solve problems that aren’t programmed or put into an algorithm.
Well, surprise! Amazon’s airborne ferries are intended to be unmanned and unpiloted.
That might be OK in the controlled setting of, say, the parking lot of Amazon’s R&D center. It would be a little unnerving, however, to know that unmanned and unpiloted Amazon drones made regular passes over the playground of your kids’ school.
There’s a reason people still do exceedingly important and potentially dangerous jobs — people remain better at them than computers.
Or, think about it like this.
Delivery drones can’t ring a doorbell, retrieve a signature or nestle a package behind a storm door on a rainy day. But Amazon’s deliveries are primarily going to be metropolitan areas, mostly to apartment buildings and office buildings? That’s even worse. How’s the service going to do any better than drop the parcel at the front door of what’s apt to be a very big and well-trafficked building?
Amazon drones face a host of problems in addition to what’s been mentioned above. A few other serious considerations include a litany of regulatory hurdles, as well as what happens when people start trying to knock these drones down for their payloads.
AMZN might have gotten some flashy PR, and probably rankled the likes of FedEx (FDX) and UPS (UPS). But you won’t have to start watching the skies for Amazon octocopters anytime soon.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.