The year is 2022. That’s only eight years from now. Two unmanned aircraft collide over a busy city street, hulks free falling to the pavement and sidewalks below, taking out the awning at an outdoor cafe and destroying two unoccupied tables. The other aircraft hits the side of a slow moving vehicle before it smacks the pavement hard enough to leave marks. While no one is hurt, the reality of the danger is brought home in very clear terms. With tens of thousands of these helicopter-like drones plying the air over America, this mid-air collision scenario might actually happen. Such is the potential for the Amazon package delivery scheme recently announced by Amazon head Jeff Bezos. Is this for real?
First off, let’s look at the timing of the announcement of this futuristic scenario; it was aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes the day before Cyber Monday. Great publicity for Amazon, the company that most likely reaps the greatest benefits from online purchasing. On first blush this scheme sounds so Buck Rogers that it makes you want to laugh. However, Bezos may have the last laugh. His company has made him worth over $24 billion, so he has a lot of resources to make things happen. Amazon has been the major factor in driving the online buying business. They do a great job at it, and they’ve literally been redesigning the way we shop. People that smart have got to be looking forward, and evidently they have, in a most serious way.
Here’s the thinking that is driving what the company calls "Amazon Prime Air." Delivery is one of the biggest expenses in Amazon’s business. If you could find a way to deliver a majority of the shipments with a small, energy efficient delivery system, the profitability would skyrocket from fantastic to super fantastic. The minds at Amazon came up with the idea of electrically powered drones with a 10-mile delivery radius and a five pound maximum carry weight. The video released by Amazon of Amazon Prime Air shows a consumer ordering what looks like a small T shaped wine bottle opener. The screen flashes to a nearby Amazon distribution center. A human being places the purchased item into a yellow plastic box and latches the lid. The box travels down a conveyor belt until it reaches the end, where a drone is perched above it. As the box hits the end of the line, four arms with small round molded balls descend on either side of the yellow box, fitting into corresponding ball sized holes, securing the box to the drone. Eight small props begin to spin, and the overly square drone lifts off and scoots out an open door. It flies to a nearby home, lands on a stone walk, deposits the box, and lifts off into the blue suburban skies. Amazing.
Here are two interesting facts: 80 percent of Amazon’s shipments are under five pounds. Over the past few years, Amazon has been quietly reinvesting in over 90 distribution centers world wide. All indications would lead one to think that Amazon is serious about this drone scheme. While it would require a massive investment, Amazon has massive resources. After watching the video and hearing the story, you’d almost have to say that it will happen. Hold on a second. Really?
To begin, Amazon needs to get the blessing of the FAA. The rules for drones and American airspace are being written now, but no one really knows what they will look like until they are released. There are lots of ifs just on the whole FAA factor alone. Then you have weather considerations. Gusting winds could wreak havoc with those light little toy-like drones. What about radio frequency interference messing up the onboard communications and guidance systems? While not overly loud, add five or more drones to the mix and you’ve got some serious decibels happening. There’s the possibility of mid-air collisions, vandals taking down drones with pellet guns, and the list goes on and on. If this scheme actually works, I’m seeing it working in very limited situations. I’m probably wrong, however, only time will tell.
Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.