I largely agree with my boss that Amazon’s plan to deliver packages below a certain size within half an hour via small octocopters through a program called Amazon Prime Air is more an attempt by Amazon to show it’s forward-thinking when it comes to delivery infrastructure than it is an actual plan that’s likely to come to fruition soon. But thinking about how Amazon Air Prime inspires a lot of great, future-facing questions, whether it’s why Amazon chose unmanned vehicles as its delivery system of the future, or how we come to relate to these replacements for our United States Postal Serviceperson. Here are four queries, inspired by science fiction and other futurist projects announced this year, that occurred to me after Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Prime Air announcement.
1. What do Amazon’s drones mean for flying cars? The biggest hurdle to Amazon Prime Air is the need for Amazon to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to send its hordes of octocopters zipping through the air. And the FAA doesn’t just have to say that the little choppers are good to go. It needs to figure out how they’ll be controlled and which flight paths they’ll be allowed to use. If the plan actually gets to this stage, the FAA would be smart to engage in a little futuristic thinking of their own, considering what it would mean not just to add package-delivery octocopters to our skies, but other kinds of vehicles as well. It’s one thing to have a volume of Amazon drones dropping off packages, but what if other companies get in on the act? What about the U.S. Postal Service? And what about that most mundane of all futuristic dreams, the flying car? Who should get licensed to operate unmanned vehicles? For the sake of migrating birds, astronomy both hobbyist and professional, and the simple pleasure of a gorgeous sky, how many of these vehicles should be licensed to operate, at which height, in which lanes, and during which hours? Amazon Prime Air may force the issue piecemeal. But the reason it’s got so many people excited is because if the plan is realized, it pushes us into a frontier that’s been much-imagined, but that raises all sorts of important regulatory questions. The FAA shouldn’t handle the octocopters as a one-off.
2. How personal could Amazon Prime Air deliveries get? It’s one thing to imagine an octocopter landing on your front lawn, but what about those of us who are apartment dwellers? Bezos’ announcement left me wondering if he’d make the world a little bit more like The Fifth Element, where floating Chinese restaurants show up at your window, and personalized messages show up by vacuum tube. So are we all about to start hanging personalized receptors outside of our windows and waiting for the octocopters to show up? It’s one thing for Mr. Kim to show up and cook me a meal outside my window. It’s another to deface a lot of attractive facades, and to let a big company know not just my address, but where, exactly, in a large building my apartment is located, especially if we’re worried about hacking. Convenience is attractive. But too much convenience might be unsettling, or even threatening.
3. Why not go with vacuum tubes instead of drones? I have to admit my nerdy little heart would have been positively singing if Bezos had declared that he and Elon Musk were teaming up to turn ultra-fast vacuum tubes into viable infrastructure that could not only zip us across the country in a half-hour, but could deliver packages directly to our homes. A vacuum tube system would involve a lot of digging and installation–I can only imagine the condo board debates about whether to allow the darn things–but it wouldn’t involve dealing with all the air space problems raised by Amazon’s planned fleet of octocopters, and limiting physical access to the tubes could diminish terrorism concerns. And let’s be honest–I’d be much more comfortable having a new set of cork trivets sucked into my house than I would be letting myself get shot across the country.
4. What happens to the mailman? And what happens when drones mess up? As my colleague Zack Beauchamp and I discussed Amazon Prime Air, one issue he raised was more old-fashioned. Letting someone handle your mail and packages, much less bring them to your home, is at least a nominally personal relationship. Would octocopters be customized to respond to consumers on a personal level, especially since many things you want delivered in a half-hour would likely be handed off to you in person? What happens if an octocopter messes up, and mis-delivers a package, or delivers it damaged? And do octocopters replace the U.S. mail? It’s easy to think of unmanned vehicles as impersonal. But one of the keys to getting consumers to accept them and use them might be to change the perceptions of drones from military devices to friendly neighborhood robots.