Don’t drone

As I mentioned today on Twitter, if Amazon’s Prime Air scheme seems like science fiction that’s because it is.

The video/commercial shown on 60 Minutes? Made up. Drones have not—cannot—make deliveries yet. Some people smarter than myself have pointed out the myriad logistical problems that are facing Prime Air, not least of which is the fact that the earliest the FAA will allow autonomous flight would be 2015. Amazon’s plan, as great as it might seem, is illegal for now. Jeff Bezos says he wants to be ready, and honestly, I don’t know if there’s a ton of money to be made betting against Bezos.

The biggest practical problem is that where Amazon is suggesting drone delivery would work best—densely-populated urban areas—don’t really need it. The places in the U.S. that could use fast, inexpensive delivery the most are rural and exurban areas, and drones aren’t well-suited for the long distances needed to deliver to those areas. In other parts of the world, maybe drone delivery will be the next big thing, but in the U.S., barring a sudden and massive re-urbanization, the places that would most like Prime Air will likely never get it.

Amazon’s announcement has brought out the technotopians who believe this could radically change the way we live.

Tyler Cowen suggests exactly that:

You would buy smaller size packages and keep smaller libraries at home and in your office. Bookshelf space would be freed up, you would cook more with freshly ground spices, the physical world would stand a better chance of competing with the rapid-delivery virtual world[…] Some drug markets would be taken off the streets and the importance of gang “turf” would fall.

Nearly a year ago, John Robb suggested an Internet of drones with open protocol and the ability to rent drones for very short deliveries.

These are big orders for tiny drones.

I don’t mean to sound like a carriage enthusiast who just got a peek at the automobile—drones delivering goods will likely have a place in the future. The logistical problems will be solved eventually.

But a lot of the hype sounds very familiar. More than a decade ago we were all told we’d do our grocery shopping online (something you can actually do now, but I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who does), and some residents of some cities could, at the turn of the millennium, order from startups like and have good delivered quickly and for free. That ended poorly.

If anyone can solve the scale issue, it’s Amazon, but don’t look for a sky full of quadcopters with happy yellow boxes hanging from their undersides anytime soon, even if the FAA were to legalize autonomous flight tomorrow.


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