Amazon’s drones concept gives us a fit of the vapours

‘Personal injury lawyers are going to have a field day if one of these drones so much as scratches a pet, never mind maims an adult’

The internet went into meltdown after Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos announced his “octocopter” delivery plan. Photograph: AP

The internet went into meltdown after Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos announced his “octocopter” delivery plan. Photograph: AP

 

It seems that, for most of us, the future can’t come fast enough. That’s the chief lesson to take from the astonishing reaction to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s announcement that Amazon is preparing an army of drones to deliver our goods and chattels. He made the announcement during an extensive interview on US television last Sunday night, and showed off a video depicting a helicopter drone called an “octocopter” serenely depositing a small package on to a neat patio.

Predictably the internet went into collective meltdown for a good day or so. The world couldn’t quite decide if this was ingenious or absurd, but it was certainly paying attention.

I couldn’t help but think that Bezos had just pulled the world’s biggest “O’Leary” – announcing some far-fetched scheme designed to impress upon customers a commitment to further embellishing that characteristic for which the company is most renowned. When Michael O’Leary announces his latest wheeze, claiming Ryanair is going to charge to use the toilets say, we might guffaw, but it sure reinforces the airline’s skinflint branding.

When Bezos announced his delivery drones, he was doing something similar – reinforcing the perception that Amazon is determined to think “outside the box”, almost literally, when it comes to delivering what we order online. Where O’Leary is reinforcing his genius for ruthless cost-cutting, Bezos is reinforcing his genius for supply chain management.

There is one significant difference between O’Leary’s stunts and the Bezos drone plan – it’s usually pretty clear O’Leary is just having a laugh, testing our credulity and getting some free publicity. With Bezos, however, I don’t actually doubt that he would like to introduce something like Amazon Prime Air.

The delivery drones represent the next stage of Bezos’s masterplan to render present-day brick and mortar retail a quaint, old-fashioned relic, and he’s just crazily ambitious enough to think it could work. The fact that nearly everyone else could immediately see all the problems such a scheme would present probably won’t deter him in the least.

And the obstacles are significant. What happens at the point of delivery? Does the drone also have to feature facial recognition technology to know you received your parcel? Personal injury lawyers are going to have a field day if any of these things so much as scratches a pet, never mind maims an adult. The logistics of flying them from huge warehouses into dense urban areas for a single deliveries doesn’t even seem to be economical. And above all, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is writing new rules banning unmanned aircraft flying a computerised flightpath.

Invariably, the technology will improve and the obstacles will change, but Bezos suggests the octocopters may be ready in as few as four or five years, which seems absurdly optimistic. There has been much speculation about why he would announce something like this so early – it’s a blatant publicity stunt at the start of the year’s busiest shopping period, of course, but is there something else at play?

Many industry watchers feel that Bezos is flying a kite with his flying delivery drones, so to speak, attempting to influence the FAA as it drafts its regulations. It’s a political move as much as a publicity- seeking one, generating a demand for the service that will allow him to lobby for favourable regulations.

Ultimately, however, I think the Amazon Prime Air video is effectively the technology world’s most successful concept video, because the delivery drone army is just another piece of vapourware – a device or piece of software that has been announced but is not yet available to use.

I’m rare among technology-watchers in that I have a deep aversion to concept videos. Sure, they can be inspiring, but experience has taught me that they are often the tool of companies with ideas that outstretch their ability to realise them. They depict fanciful visions of the future unconstrained by the limits of the real world and, in the process, exaggerate the company’s own technological capabilities.

Vapourware is a particularly pejorative phrase in the technology world for precisely this reason – it’s not that hard to come up with ambitious or wacky ideas, and only a little harder to make an impressive video depicting how that idea might work. What most definitely is hard is actually overcoming real-world constraints and delivering a delightful, functional product or service.

But as Bezos is well aware, we yearn for the bold vision, the glimpse at what the future will hold. As the wave of publicity he got has demonstrated, we lap this stuff up. It’s a form of science fiction, but with the promise that it will soon be science fact.

For many of us, then, the future can’t come fast enough, but time has a funny habit of marching on, 24 hours a day, 365ish days a year, and not even Bezos can make the future happen any faster.

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