Have you got all your drone jokes out of your system? All right then, let's talk about Amazon's Prime Air R&D plan that they announced on CBS News yesterday. In case you haven't heard, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos surprised Charlie Rose and the rest of the shopping world by revealing a secret project to delivery packages to Amazon customers with autonomous aerial vehicles. Twitter reactionaries rejoiced.
Yes, this was a precisely-timed piece of stunt publicity that was itself a part of a well-timed CBS interview over the biggest US shopping weekend of the year. But that doesn't mean Amazon isn't taking this project seriously, and that we shouldn't either. The more interesting questions are in thinking about two things: how this could work, and why Amazon would spend money pursuing it in the first place. Here are the sparse details we know so far, from CBS's interview.
The prototype system Amazon has developed uses electric octocopter drones with the intent of delivering packages up to five pounds in weight to customers within 30 minutes of ordering. These drones currently have a 10-mile travel radius, which Bezos says would operate in urban areas to reach the highest density of customers possible. According to Amazon's FAQ page, the technology is almost ready now, but Amazon doesn't expect to have Prime Air in operation for 4-5 years while they await new FAA regulations.
So there are a few things to take away from this information. The most important is that Prime Air is being designed as a true drone infrastructure, meaning aerial vehicles controlled autonomously by algorithms and computer navigation. There's a clear distinction between remote-controlled aircraft piloted by humans (what the public normally thinks of when we talk about US military drones) and autonomous aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the ones made by Chris Anderson's 3D Robotics. From a technology standpoint, UAV drones are more exciting and the more practical system to deploy en masse for Amazon; we're talking about an extension of the automated routing systems already being used by (non-flying) robots in Amazon warehouses for inventory management. From a technology infrastructure perspective, Amazon's existing computational, physical, and logistical resources prime (sorry) the company to experiment in this technology without the same kind of risk that another company--say, a Google--would have to take on.
And Google is exactly the kind of company that Jeff Bezos is worried has the ability to disrupt Amazon's grip on the online shopping market. That leads us into the 'why' of the endeavor, which Bezos spells out clearly in his interview with Charlie Rose. Companies don't last forever, and neither do business models. Amazon is experimenting with drone delivery because it feels like it has to--it's a relatively cheap way to keep their eggs in multiple baskets so it can adapt as new business models become viable with new technology. Amazon isn't betting its future in Prime Air, but it is putting its foot in the door so it won't be caught off guard with the FAA figures out new mandated-drone regulation in 2015. The existing laws that allow for unregulated UAV flights under 400 feet--enjoyed by many a hobbyist--actually keep potential disruptions at bay because they don't allow drones for business use. Not that enterprising individuals aren't already testing the tech.
That leads us to the other important question that Prime Air's announcement raises: do we really need 30-minute delivery? The answer for the vast majority of people is probably no, but I don't think that's the point. It's not a matter of whether Amazon customers need or even want a 30-minute delivery option, it's a matter of what kind of service expectation becomes the new normal. Google's venture into same day delivery with Google Shopping Express is its attempt to move into Amazon's territory--if only for the lucrative data collecting benefits--not by sinking money into expensive warehouses and physical infrastructure, but by changing shoppers' perceptions of what to expect from an online shopping experience. Scientists call this Shifting Baseline Syndrome, and we've seen it happen before in 2005. That's when Amazon announced the then-shocking two-day shipping Prime subscription plan. It's still $80 I gladly spend every year.