Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded Amazon an "experimental airworthiness certificate" to test its plans to use drones to deliver purchases to customers. The certificate allows drone use only within line-of-sight of a certified pilot, but that's not the only problem with the concept.
In fact, the quest for FAA approval is just a sideshow. The real problems with drone deliveries are practical, not regulatory. Don't believe me? Let's think about it for a moment (you won't need much more time than that…I came up with this list in just a few minutes, with only marginal help from a Google search):
- It's not clear that drone deliveries will be any cheaper than existing methods. Even without pilots on board, lifting stuff into the air takes a lot of energy.
- It will never work for heavy items. Imagine using drones to deliver a case of cat food cans? Ridiculous.
- Drones can't go everywhere. In fact, drones can't go to a heck of a lot of places. Not everything Amazon delivers goes to the easy-to-reach front porches of suburban homes. Are drones going to fly up the stairwells in Boston office towers and Manhattan apartment buildings? And how are they going to navigate the rat's nest of utility wires in neighborhoods like mine in San Francisco?
- Oh, and you may have read about people stealing packages from front porches in many neighborhoods. With drone delivery, intrepid thieves wouldn't just steal the package, they'd steal the drones, too.
- And if thieves didn't steal them, you can bet bored teenagers would invent exciting new ways to shoot them down. Not to mention rabid property rights advocates trying to maintain control over their airspace. No matter what they law may dictate, many people will not be willing to cede "neighborhood air superiority" to Amazon… or anyone else.
- Hacking. Even as relatively dim teens attempt to down the drones with everything from slingshots to BB guns, their cleverer compatriots will be working feverishly to take over the systems powering the drones. If the Iranians can hack U.S. military drones armed with deadly missiles, smart suburban teens can certainly wreak havoc on commercial drones fetching burritos.
- Crowding. Drones are small and can't carry that much. To deliver everything Amazon needs to move every day would require squadron after squadron of drones, increasing the inevitability they'd bump into each other.
- What happens when all those drones bumping into each other get involved in accidents? Who pays for the damaged goods, and whatever else gets damaged in the process?
- Weather. 'Nuff said.
- If drones aren't able to deliver all ordered items to all locations at all times—and that seems inarguable—Amazon would have to maintain multiple delivery logistics. The costs of that alone would likely be enough to negate any benefits of drone delivery.
So despite the ongoing hype around Amazon's ongoing efforts to tap into drones (or maybe because of it), the whole concept of drone delivery remains little more than a publicity stunt.
Could there be a few isolated use cases where drone delivery makes sense for a company like Amazon? Sure. But if mainstream drone delivery is really such a good idea, you can expect the existing delivery companies, from FedEx to UPS to the USPS, to figure it out first. After all, they have a lot more at stake here than Amazon does.