Last night on 60 Minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced plans to deliver packages to peoples homes’ in 30 minutes via unmanned drones. A company website says that Amazon has already solved the technical hurdles for such a program and the company will be ready to begin as soon as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves the use of drones, which they hope will occur “sometime in 2015.” Bezos was slightly more circumspect in his 60 minutes interview, suggesting the service will be available in four or five years, and predicting, “It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
Hundreds of articles have already been written recapping the announcement — many simply quoting Bezos and embedding Amazon’s promotional video touting the program. But there are several reasons to be skeptical of the announcement:
1. The CEO of a major drone company says using drones for home delivery is an “incredibly stupid” idea. Chris Anderson, the CEO of 3D robotics, says that the use of drones “for delivery in built-up areas around people” makes no sense, citing safety concerns. He is bullish on the use of drones, however, for farmers and agribusiness.
2. Drones are extremely vulnerable to hacking. A group of researchers from the University of Texas recently hacked a sophisticated drone using a store-bought GPS system. Todd Humphrey, a professor at the University of Texas, explained that “If you can convincingly fake a GPS signal, you can convince an (unmanned aerial vehicle) into tracking your signal instead of the authentic one, and at that point you can control the UAV.”
3. Current technology does not enable drones to avoid crashing into people. Dr. Darren Ansell, a British expert in unmanned aerial vehicles, told the BBC that “The UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people.”
4. Drones present a prime target for thieves. BusinessWeek asks: “Won’t folks make a sport of stealing these vehicles or shooting them out of the sky?” And then there is an issue of the package itself. The Guardian raises a series of vexing questions: “how does [the drone] then find the package’s intended recipient? How is the transfer of the package enacted? What stops someone else stealing the package along the way?”
5. The FAA is not likely to approve routine commercial use of drones for any purpose for more than a decade. According to a report early this month in the Wall Street Journal, even proponents of drone use do not anticipate their routine use for commercial purposes until at least 2025. The current FAA road map doesn’t even allow drones to be certified until 2020. Civil liberties groups and some members of Congress say the procedures outlined so far do not adequately protect privacy and could further delay the process. Several states have passed laws banning or limiting drone use.
Drones, however, are a fully operational public relations device — something that is particularly important to Amazon on Cyber Monday. Splashy announcements concerning drones have been used to hype tacos, Dominos pizza, and a Philadelphia dry cleaner in recent months.
One place where Bezos garnered positive media attention for his announcement is the Washington Post, which he recently purchased. One article begins “Jeffrey P. Bezos has never been known for thinking small.” After breezing over a few possible complications, the author predicts that Amazon will probably “overcome…obstacles in the long run.” A second article simply embeds the Amazon promotional video and quotes snippets from Bezos’ interview. An AP article, which the Washington Post is also running, included the quote: “Jeff Bezos might be the single person in the universe who could make something like this happen.”