Amazon’s Delivery Copters – They’re Kidding, Right?

Did you see 60 Minutes last night? Or any of the news channels today? Everyone’s ga-ga over small-package delivery by helicopter drone. It’s not going to work. Here’s why…

Since I recently reviewed a cool, better-than-toy quadricopter for the 2013 Network World Holiday Gift Guide, I was intrigued to see the demo of Amazon's proposed octocopter delivery system, wherein packages of up to five pounds could be delivered by autonomous helicopter drone within 30 minutes of ordering for many Amazon customers. I heard on 60 Minutes that about 85% of what Amazon sells is five pounds or less.

So, then, the technology is feasible. The intended market is large. It's great marketing regardless. But it's not going to fly - figuratively or practically. Why, you ask? In no particular order, the following list took literally two minutes to compile, so I'm sure there's more. But, just for starters:

  • Weight - Sure, up to five pounds is great. But what about orders made up of multiple items? Am I going to get drowned in multiple flights?
  • Landing zones - Second-floor condo? I think not.
  • GPS - It's normally quite accurate, but it's not guaranteed as such.
  • German shepherds - Assuming Fido running over to investigate/attack/whatever (with the mandatory accompanying barking storm) survives the encounter with the spinning blades, who pays for the stiches? And the mangled copter?
  • Heart attacks - some folks are going be scared wingless when one of these sets down.
  • Trees - They grow. The have leaves sometimes, and other not. They blow in the wind. They eat toy helicopters for breakfast.
  • Power lines - They may appear in places previously uninhabited by such. Just how good are the autonomous control systems at work here? I suppose if Google can build a self-driving car, Amazon can build a self-flying helicopter. But neither is a proven technology just yet.
  • Aerodynamics and balance - That five-pound payload needs to fit in a container no bigger than a certain size. So pillows and such larger-but-still-lightweight objects are likely out.
  • Sliced-up kids - The good lord forbid, but it's going to happen. Small children know nothing about spinning blades.
  • Theft - But some older kids know all about new toys, legally obtained or not.
  • Skeet shooting (added 12/3/13) - And what about morons with shotguns?
  • Property damage - Chopping down mom's new roses lining the driveway isn't something I want to be around for - or after.
  • Dead batteries - It's going to happen. Graceful auto-rotation down? Unlikely. Landing on someone or something? More likely. Fixing scratches on a Ferrari? Priceless.
  • Catastrophic failure - Things wear out, and often at the worst possible time.
  • Weather - Sudden thunderstorms and related events do not treat lightweight aircraft well.
  • Government regulations - The FAA currently doesn't allow such aircraft. Maybe they will, but it's a bit hard to see that at present. Suppose other retailers decide to copy Amazon, and we end up with crowded skies and even mid-air collisions? And what about collisions with other toy aircraft, and even kites?
  • Concerns about privacy - Amazon is building a Cloud for the CIA. Are they going to be spying on us as well? "They" here is intentionally left vague.

I admire this kind of innovative, out-of-the-box, exciting, push-the-envelope thinking more than almost any other element of the creative process. Crazy ideas often spur real innovations with legs - or, I suppose, even wings. Sadly, this isn't one of those - but it is way cool and great marketing regardless.

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