Jeff Bezos said Amazon drones could deliver toothpaste and cat food to American homes within four or five years. That was almost nine years ago. Oops.
This week, amazon said planned to start its first drone deliveries in the US sometime in 2022, perhaps in a city in California.
Today’s newsletter addresses two questions: Why are drone deliveries taking so long? And are they better than other ways of bringing goods to our door?
The bottom line: For the foreseeable future, drone deliveries will be useful in a limited number of locations for a small number of products under certain conditions. But due to technical and financial constraints, drones are unlikely to be the future of large-scale package delivery.
Drone deliveries are a significant improvement for some tasks, like bringing medicine to people in remote areas. But that’s less ambitious than the grand dream of drones that Bezos and others pitched to the public.
Why are drones so difficult?
Miniplanes operating without human control face two major obstacles: The technology is complex, and governments have required a lot of red tape, often for good reason. (In the US, the regulatory issues have largely been resolved.)
Dan Patt, an experienced drone engineer and senior member of the Hudson Institute research group, said that he and I could make our own delivery drone in a garage in about a week for less than $5,000. The basics are not that difficult.
But the real world is infinitely complex and drones can’t deal with it. At fast speeds, drones must accurately “see” and navigate around buildings, power lines, trees, other aircraft and people before landing on the ground or sending packages from a height. The GPS could go wrong for a fraction of a second and crash the drone. There is little room for error.
“Solving the first part of the problem is very easy,” said Patt. “Solving the whole problem to make drone delivery fully robust is really hard.”
The typical approach of technologists is to think smaller, which means limiting drones to relatively simple environments. Start-up Zipline focused on using drones to deliver blood and medical supplies to health centers in relatively scattered parts of Rwanda and Ghana, where driving was difficult. A typical suburb or city is more complex and vehicle deliveries are better alternatives. (Lockeford, California, where Amazon plans its first US drone deliveries, has a few thousand people living in mostly scattered households.)
It continues to be an incredible achievement and over time drones are becoming more and more capable of making deliveries in other types of settings.
The even more complicated problem, Patt said, is that drone deliveries may not make economic sense most of the time. It’s cheap to put one more package on a UPS delivery truck. But drones can’t carry that much. They can’t do many layovers on a flight. People and vehicles still need to carry cat food and toothpaste wherever drones take off.
“I think it’s small markets, small concepts, niche usage for the next 10 years,” Patt said. “It’s not going to scale to replace everything.” Some people who work with drones are more optimistic than Patt, but we’ve seen similar optimism in other areas fall short.
Over Promising and Under Delivering
The parallels between drones and self-driving cars kept staring at me. Drone technologists told me that, as with self-driving cars, they misjudged the challenge and overestimated the potential of computer-controlled vehicles.
Reliable drone delivery and self-driving cars are a good idea, but they may never be as widespread as technologists imagined.
We keep making the same mistakes with automated technology. For decades, technologists kept saying that driverless cars, computers that reason like humans and robotic factory workers would soon be ubiquitous and better than ever before. We want to believe them. And when the vision does not work, disappointment arises.
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Online shopping that is better for the planet
Brian X ChenThe New York Times consumer tech columnist, suggests ways to make our online purchases (not delivered by drones) a little kinder to the planet.
Resist instant gratification. If you don’t need an item right away, it’s best to choose the slower shipping time. Overnight or same-day deliveries often mean parcel companies opt for speed over efficiency – more air travel and more miles driven contributing to pollution.
Use less cardboard. There is an option called Amazon Day Delivery that allows people to choose a specific day of the week and consolidate multiple orders into one delivery. Items are also packed in fewer boxes. Additionally, for some items, Amazon offers “Frustration-Free Packaging” which eliminates some unnecessary packaging. Choosing any of these options will reduce your consumption of cardboard and plastic.
When practical, buy used. For many Amazon listings, there is an option to purchase the product used. For many items, from cast-iron cookware to screwdrivers, it makes a lot of sense to buy something that has been lightly used before you return it. You’re giving a product a second life and saving yourself a few bucks.
Before we go…
A former Google video producer has sued the company, claiming he was fired after complaining about the influence of a religious sect at work. Cade Metz and Dai Wakabayashi unraveled a strange story of software, winemaking, and higher consciousness.
Inside the world of ransomware bargaining: Bloomberg News described the job of negotiators who deal with criminals who lock down organizations’ computer systems until they get paid. (A subscription may be required.)
A crypto workplace collapses during a crypto market crash. My colleagues Ryan Mac and David Yaffe-Bellany report on the head of a cryptocurrency company who told employees to quit if they disagreed with him on issues like women’s intelligence and gender identity.
a hug to this
Birds are great. here’s a nightingale imitating the sounds of a car alarm, police siren and Mobile phone.
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