Drone Delivery: Technical feasibility does not guarantee market success

One of my first ever futurology articles explained why Digital Compact Cassette wouldn’t succeed in the marketplace and I was proved right. It should have been obvious from the outset that it wouldn’t fly well, but it was still designed, manufactured and shipped to a few customers.

Decades on, I had a good laugh yesterday reading about the Amazon drone delivery service. Yes, you can buy drones; yes, they can carry packages, and yes, you can make them gently place a package on someone’s doorstep. No, it won’t work in the marketplace. I was asked by the BBC Radio 4 to explain on air, but the BBC is far more worried about audio quality than content quality and I could only do the interview from home, so they decided not to use me after all (not entirely fair – I didn’t check who they actually used and it might have been someone far better).

Anyway, here’s what I would have said:

The benefits are obvious. Many of the dangers are also obvious, and Amazon isn’t a company I normally associate with stupidity, so they can’t really be planning to go all the way. Therefore, this must be a simple PR stunt, and the media shouldn’t be such easy prey for free advertising.

Very many packages are delivered to homes and offices every day. If even a small percentage were drone-delivered, the skies will be full of drones. Amazon would only control some of them. There would be mid-air collisions between drones, between drones and kites and balloons, with new wind turbines, model aeroplanes and helicopters, even with real emergency helicopters. Drones with spinning blades would be dropping out of the sky frequently, injuring people, damaging houses and gardens, onto roads, causing accidents. People would die.

Drones are not silent. A lot of drones would make a lot of extra ambient noise in an environment where noise pollution is already too high. They are also visible, creating another nuisance visual disturbance.

Kids are mischievous. Some adults are mischievous, some criminal, some nosey, some terrorists. I can’t help wonder what the life expectancy of a drone would be if it is delivering to a housing estate full of kids like the one I was. If I was still a kid, I’d be donning a mask (don’t want Amazon giving my photo to the police) and catching them, making nets to bring them down and stringing wires between buildings on their normal routes, throwing stones at them, shooting them with bows and arrows, Nerf guns, water pistols, flying other toy drones into their paths. I’d be tying all sorts of other things onto them for their ongoing journey. I’d be having a lot of fun on the black market with all the intercepted goods too.

If I were a terrorist, and if drones were becoming common delivery tools, I’d buy some and put Amazon labels on them, or if I’m short of cash, I’d hijack a few, pay kids pocket money to capture them, and after suitable mods, start using them to deliver very nasty packages precisely onto doorsteps or spray lethal concoctions into the air above specific locations.

If I were just criminal, I’d make use of the abundance of drones to make my own less conspicuous, so that I could case homes for burglaries, spy on businesses with cameras and intercept their wireless signals, check that an area is free of police, or get interesting videos for my voyeur websites. Maybe I’d add a blinding laser into them to attack any police coming into the scene of my crime, giving valuable extra time without giving my location away.

There are also social implications: jobs in Amazon, delivery and logistics companies would trade against drone manufacturing and management. Neighbours might fall out if a house frequently gets noisy deliveries from a drone while people are entering and leaving an adjacent door or relaxing in the garden, or their kids are playing innocently in the front garden as a drone lands very close by. Drone delivery would be especially problematic when doorways are close together, as they often are in cities.

Drones are good fun as toys and for hobbies, in low numbers. They are also useful for some utility and emergency service tasks, under supervision. They are really not a good solution for home delivery, even if technically it can be done. Amazon knows that as well as I do, and this whole thing can only be a publicity stunt. And if it is, well, I don’t mind, I had a lot of fun with it anyway.

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2 responses to “Drone Delivery: Technical feasibility does not guarantee market success

  1. There is limitation to using drones as a delivery mechanism. In looking at the ones shown in the Amazon hype I can imagine what high winds would do to the delivery schedule. Recently I watched someone flying a drone in the park not two blocks from my home. At low levels it flew well controlled remotely by its operator. But when it rose to levels higher than 10 meters it started to show its instability in wind conditions and soon became un-aerodynamic. So that alone makes the little beasts unreliable.

    I can see such devices being used for search and rescue where an extra set of overhead eyes is much needed. I have even written about drones that become running companions. See http://www.21stcentech.com/robotics-update-joggobot-flies-joggers/. But for doing deliveries…..not a chance.

  2. I’m guessing many of the considerations you raise are exactly why Amazon considers drone deployment still a few years out. Clearly, they can pick up and deliver packages right now. Where Amazon will make their real money is in solving these challenges in creative ways that other companies aren’t even thinking about, even as drone function, availability and cost continue to advance.

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