Amazon’s drone delivery service: not science fiction

Amazon Prime Air

A story that’s all over the news web today is about Amazon’s plans to start a delivery service that will get your package directly to your door straight from an Amazon fulfilment centre via a drone pilotless aircraft.

No middlemen – no postal service, no couriers – just Amazon. And delivery within 30 minutes.

amazonprimeairlogoKnown as Amazon Prime Air, the service looks to be in an advanced planning stage – drones have been made and at least one test flight carried out – with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saying that he hopes to start service in 2015.

[...] It looks like science fiction, but it’s real. From a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles.

[...] We hope the FAA’s rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015. We will be ready at that time.

So, the service will launch in the US to begin with. I imagine Amazon’s long-term plans would be to bring it to its other markets including the UK.

Calling the service Amazon Prime Air is interesting: Amazon Prime is the Amazon delivery service that you pay an annual subscription to and then get free delivery for your orders (and other benefits, too). The name suggests that would include deliveries by drones.

If they’ve got to this stage in their planning, it’s clear Amazon have worked out how to meet the logistical challenges in enabling a service like this that says it will deliver your order within 30 minutes if you’re within ten miles of a fulfilment centre.

I guess it also suggests expansion plans by Amazon to extend its network of fulfilment centres so as to extend its direct reach to more customers. I also guess that the definition of "fulfilment centres" will evolve – not only those gigantic warehouses that we see pictures of every Christmas, but also smaller places from which drones can be used; and, looking at unusual places where opportunity arises to deliver consumer orders for them to collect  – the London tube, for example (obviously not for drones).

To see what Amazon Prime Air may look like, here’s a video Amazon published showing a recent test flight and delivery:

(If you don’t see the video embedded above, watch it at YouTube.)

Lucky it wasn’t raining. And the dog was indoors.

Good timing for the announcement when everyone is focused on online shopping: we had Black Friday last week, and today is Cyber Monday – two events where Amazon already plays a massive role in getting goods to customers.

Innovation and imagination – two ingredients that add context to the technologies that shape our lives and influence our behaviours. And vice versa.

(Via The Verge.)

[Later] And so, the jokes begin… :)

We attempted a drone delivery...

[Update Dec 3] This story certainly has attracted widespread reporting and commentary and, most of all, strong opinion.

Among the handful of people in my networks I spoke to yesterday, all of them expressed cynicism and disbelief in varying degrees. None of them believed Amazon’s reported drone idea will become reality. All of them saw the news as a PR stunt.

You can get an idea of that sentiment in some of the comments to this post.

Pro, con or indifferent, commentary and opinion about drone delivery has focused great attention on Amazon, opening up a public conversation about its business, its model and what might be next. That conversation has been largely positive so far, with nary a credible mention of the alleged dark side of Amazon, eg, its working practices and allegations of treating product-picking fulfilment centre employees like robots.

From a PR point of view, Amazon must be quite pleased with the coverage across the mainstream media and the social web over the past 48 hours.

Some reporting is looking more closely at the very feasibility of the idea, casting doubt on that feasibility. Looking, too, at the likelihood or otherwise of getting regulatory approval in the US. And alternative ideas are beginning to emerge from rivals, such as Waterstones Harry Potter-like concept.

Now there’s a PR stunt.

So, does Amazon Prime Air look like an eagle poised for lift off. Or just a turkey? Maybe Jeff Bezos’ 2015 target is just too optimistic. Maybe it will be 2020.

Or maybe it could take off as planned. From today’s FT reporting on divided opinion in the drone industry:

[...] Amazon had to announce a drone initiative long before its launch, [Dustin Boyer, a San Francisco entrepreneur,] adds, because if it did not, a rival such as Google – which is already testing self-driving cars, a harder technical challenge than airborne autopiloting – would beat them to it.

Rumours in Silicon Valley suggest Google is already working on its own UAV technology, though it is not clear for what purpose, while one Australian start-up is reportedly planning drone deliveries on college campuses early next year.

However, Jonathan Downey is more cautious about Amazon’s idea. As chief executive of Airware, which is developing autopilot "brains" for drones, he believes that using UAVs for delivery is something better suited to remote parts of Africa than dense, built-up environments such as US cities.

"We definitely think things are going to be delivered by drones," says Mr Downey. "Whether it’s books and whether it’s by Amazon I’m sceptical, certainly within the next three or four years."

[...] "We’re really excited because we get a big player to basically sponsor the validity of having a drone business," says Christian Sanz, chief executive of Skycatch, another UAV start-up. "It makes it easier for us to fight the war with FAA."

I’m keeping an open mind.

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