In Our View: Drone Deliveries

Amazon's pipe dream has limitations, but, as history shows, that will change

Published:

 

There’s no doubt that it’s a “talker” — the kind of story that sparks the imagination with visions of Jetsons-like technology. Amazon.com has announced a desire to someday deliver small packages through Amazon Prime Air — an octocopter that has eight helicopter-like blades and could carry packages weighing up to 5 pounds. In other words, a drone.

Yes, that new Miley Cyrus CD you ordered could be on its way to your front door before you log off the computer. In addition to immediacy, there are some side benefits to that: You wouldn’t have to feel embarrassed about not tipping the delivery drone; and you could avoid the shame of eye contact with somebody who knows you just bought a Miley Cyrus CD.

The idea of Amazon drone deliveries came to light when “60 Minutes” recently ran a profile of company CEO Jeff Bezos, who unveiled his vision of the future. Seattle-based Amazon long has been several steps ahead of the curve when it comes to seeing the potential of technology-based commerce, but the drone idea has touched a particular nerve among the populace. The thought of several drones buzzing around the neighborhood, delivering books and CDs and handbags, is at once unnerving and exhilarating. But mostly it leads to questions about what other technological advancements await — and when we will finally start flying around using jetpacks.

For now, however, the Amazon delivery drones remain a pipe dream. First of all, they have not been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is a sizable roadblock to the plan. Considering that the drones’ technology does not allow them to avoid flying into power lines or light poles or other drones, it’s unlikely that the FAA will offer its blessing anytime soon. Second of all, modern drones have limited range, meaning they would be used only within 10 miles of an Amazon distribution center. And finally, people who understand such things still haven’t figured out how to deliver to a consumer who lives in a high-rise apartment.

Those limitations will change over time. Remember, the first home computers did little beyond performing basic mathematics, and the initial cellphones were about the size of an anvil. Drone technology will improve, and Amazon’s announcement has merely opened the eyes of the public to the possibilities within.

That should come as no surprise. Bezos created his company after recognizing the potential of online commerce, then deciding that books were the most logical product for such a retailer. Amazon quickly expanded to offering CDs and videos, then developed the Kindle book reader, and now sells furniture and clothing and groceries. It is the world’s largest online retailer, generating $61 billion in revenue in 2012 with nary a brick-and-mortar store.

Once, not all that long ago in the realm of human history, the notion of a telephone or a light bulb or a radio might have seemed farfetched. So, when Bezos says his company someday will send a package-bearing drone to your front door, it’s easy to believe him: “It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.” The fun won’t stop with Amazon.

Working on a car in your driveway? Spend two minutes on the computer and have that spark plug you need delivered by drone. Lounging with your family at the park? Push a few buttons on your smart phone and have some chips and soft drinks flown out to you.

The possibilities are endless, but there is one landmark that will signify the arrival of drone technology and its importance in altering American lives: Pizza delivery. That’s when the power of the drone will truly become transformative.