This makes total sense. Physics was unable to deliver us our flying cars or jet packs. But what were we going to do with them anyway? Well, go to the bookstore, of course! Alas, in the absence of advanced space age technology we are forced to drive, or even walk, to the bookstore.

But not any more, because Jeff Bezos at Amazon has promised us … promised … the new “Amazon Prime Air” service. This is where the books (and other stuff we order from Amazon.com) fly to us, encased in small brightly colored boxes that apparently we get to keep after the delivery. They fly attached to the underbelly of a robotic helicopter.

Here it is happening, for real:

Amazing.

There may be a few holes in this story though. For one thing, why are humans packing the brightly colored boxes? I would think that the first thing you’d do if you were creating a robotic delivery system is to replace those humans with much more efficient robots. For another thing, why is the flying robot, which Mr. Bezos has, in a brilliant moment of marketing genius called a “Drone,” dropping the object in the middle of the driveway? My driveway is also a thoroughfare for dozens of middle and high school students going to and from school. That would not work for me. Maybe we need to have tiny heliports on our roofs. For another thing, what about big things, or orders where multiple packages will be delivered at once? Do these flying robots scale up? Will they cooperate when flying in flocks? Also, having delivery of potentially essential items taken out of the hand of the post office for whom “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” with different rules, like airlines have, about flying … I am not sure that I am comfortable with this.

(Below is the 60 minutes segment on which the Drone was announced.)

This is all well and good. Well, actually it is disturbing and evil. Anyway, I’m sticking with my original contention regarding Amazon: It has become, effectively, a public good (for better or worse) like roads and canals and such, but it is a public good owned by some guy. Those things, roads canals and such, were often originally created and maintained by private corporations licensed by the government, until society realized that that would not do. Proper free market competition and fair play (to the extent that those two things sometimes work together) can only happen if the infrastructure is a public good and that which uses the infrastructure mostly isn’t. Jeff Bezos has made clear, explicitly, that he wants Amazon to sell everything to everyone. And, they hold patents to do that sort of thing. And now they intend to take over the sky. Aren’t there rules about that?

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Other links of interest:

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Comments

  1. #1 George Wiman
    Normal, IL
    December 1, 2013

    I expect there would be a landing-pad transponder you could lay down for Amazon deliveries. Then it would put the package down on the exact spot you designated. Fancy landing pads would even enclose and protect the package until you got home.

  2. #2 G
    California USA
    December 1, 2013

    The goal here, as with many such “innovations,” is frictionless consumption. You see it now – you want it now – you get it now. And along with the narcissistic now-ism, what we also get is faster depletion of finite resources, and increased carbon dump into the atmosphere.

    As long as policy makers continue to cling to the catechism of “economic growth,” this kind of crap will be the inevitable result, until the bauble-bubble bursts.

    Who is going to have the courage to stand up in a major public forum and say: NO, you can’t always get what you want, and NO, indefinite growth is not possible on a finite planet? I’m reminded of parents who constantly give in every time their toddler has a tantrum in the supermarket. “OK dear, you can have the Super Duper Sugar Poops with the hyperactive hyena on the box.”

  3. #3 Jay
    USA
    December 1, 2013

    It’s a nice idea. Every home having its own helicopter was also a nice idea. The air traffic would be crazy. There will be no mass delivery via drones until a air traffic control system is in place. Can you imagine the problems caused by multi company and private drones criss-crossing over the city? We have enough trouble with limited air liners. It isn’t going to happen any time soon. The government will put a stop to it for safety and of course USA gov, profit – tax, insurance etc.

  4. #4 James Bishop
    United States
    December 2, 2013

    Nah. The same technology will allow the drones to provide their own separation. The traffic problem you see has already been solved. It’s going to happen. And, it’s better than what we do now with vans running up and down the streets. It will be very useful for some kinds of urgent deliveries, documents and so on. Such drones will be able to operate in all light conditions and nearly every weather condition, except very high winds. Get used to it. the technical problems were solved years ago. 777 aircraft do it every day, among others.

  5. #5 Ken
    December 2, 2013

    A company in Australia has been delivering textbooks to students using drones for awhile now (the Australian version of the FAA is much more progressive). They have the customers use their phones as a signal to home in on, tell the customer to go outside as the drone approaches, and the drone hovers above while lowering the package down.

  6. #6 Art
    December 2, 2013

    I’m thinking a small directed EMP pulse generator rigged to a motion detector might bag me a few of those drones. I will gladly sell them back to Amazon for a few thousand each. Always cooperative, I will even accept payments in Amazon credit, as long as he doesn’t mind having to buy back the delivery drones.

    And if the EMP is too technically difficult I’m thinking of taking up skeet.

  7. #7 bks
    December 2, 2013

    Excellent point about packing the boxes, Greg. Why can’t robots handle this simple task? Because they would be way, way, way too slow. Currently it takes a robot about 20 minutes to locate, orient and fold a towel. If they tried to use robots to pack boxes, Amazon would fold in a month.

    –bks

  8. #8 Rob Honeycutt
    December 2, 2013

    The challenges for this idea are so immense, it’s absurd that Bezos is presenting it as anything other than an interesting idea. As a GA pilot someone who’s flown lots of RC aircraft, the chances of this working in the near-term is zero to none.

    1) They can’t fly autonomously. That means each unit still requires a pilot.
    2) FAA requires that RC aircraft be in sight of the person controlling it, and it takes the FAA a very very long time to change it’s rules.
    3) Small aircraft have extra challenges with wind and turbulence that is going to make them unsafe in neighborhoods or around people.
    4) Range. Carrying anything at all, these are not going to have any significant range. Thirty minutes is a long time for a small aircraft. That means, 10 mins out, 10 mins back, and 10 mins necessary reserves. Add a 10 knot wind and range will be a couple of miles.

    The solution to many of these problems is to make a larger aircraft. That makes it even more dangerous when it does have a problem. Now you’re not just getting knocked in the head by a 3 lb out-of-control helicopter (bad enough already), you’re being crushed by a 30 lb aircraft as it plummets to the ground at 100+ mph.

    It’s a cool idea whose time is nowhere near. I give it 20 more years.

  9. #9 Edward Wright
    December 2, 2013

    “Physics was unable to deliver us our flying cars”

    Please don’t confuse a silly tv commercial with reality.

    Flying cars have been around since before WW II. There is no “physics” that prevent building them, but no one wants to buy them. It’s basic engineering and simple economics. Automobiles suffer from road wear. A typical car is worn out after maybe 10 years. Airplanes last for decades.

    It doesn’t make sense to drive your airplane on the road and have to replace it every 10 years. It’s more practical to have two machines, for two separate jobs.

    But if you *really* want a flying car, you can buy one. They still show up at Oshkosh every year — no matter what Avery Brooks thinks.

    http://www.citizensinspace.org/2012/05/flying-cars-rocket-belts-and-space-travel/

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    December 2, 2013

    OK, but what about my Jet Pack then?

  11. #11 CrazedLeper
    December 2, 2013

    Two words: Target practice.

  12. #13 sailor
    December 2, 2013

    The range of these things is usually severely limited. This must be for around town only.

  13. #14 Jim Thomerson
    December 2, 2013

    In the hobby shop the other day, one of the clerks was flying a quadricopter about 2 inches across. It had excellent control and stability. It was cute.

  14. #15 Greg Laden
    December 2, 2013

    It could be used to deliver replacement ants to people with ant farms.

  15. #16 Doug Alder
    49.097040 N, 117.698532 W
    December 6, 2013

    Just shows what a brilliant marketer Bezos is – he got 60 Minutes to devote several minutes to a crazy idea that everyone is now talking about and giving Amazon a gazillion dollars worth of of free advertising . :)

    If it were to take off (whoops I see what I did there) I might have to take up rocketeering and start building some really tiny SAMs. Well that or take up skeet shooting again :)

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