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Amazon’s Prime Air unmanned aircraft project envisions a day when drones could deliver merchandise to customers in 30 minutes or less. That may seem far-fetched now, but history offers many lessons on major technology shifts in the marketplace.

Amazon via Associated Press,

Amazon's drone delivery may not be as far-fetched as it seems

  • Article by: Nick Bilton
  • New York Times
  • December 10, 2013 - 5:22 PM

 

Raise your hand if you get this whole Amazon drone thing.

By now the next bright idea from Jeff Bezos — that tiny drones will one day be whizzing overhead and dropping Amazon packages at America’s doorsteps — has gone through a few turns of the spin cycle. For many, it sounds like a sci-fi fantasy wrapped in public relations hype, or a total nightmare. Maybe both.

To which I say: pizza. (Stay with me.)

Most of us take it for granted that we can have a pizza delivered to our door in about 30 minutes. But that kind of routine, hyper-convenience usually ends at the edge of the pizza box. Books, clothes, groceries: It usually takes at least 24 hours, and often two to five business days, for goods like those to be delivered.

Like it or not, e-commerce is changing the way the world shops. It is also changing expectations. Two-day delivery was great then, but this is now. Bezos is not the only one who says technology will continue to reshape the old-school delivery business just as it has reshaped so much else.

Why? In no small part because there is money to be made. Worldwide, e-commerce sales topped $1 trillion last year, according to the research firm eMarketer. Sales growth in the double digits will almost certainly continue through at least 2016. There is going to be a lot more stuff to deliver out there. What we buy on our smartphones in seconds we want on our doorstep in minutes.

Even the serious technophiles like Bezos say delivery drones and their ilk are still years away. Many ordinary people probably think the idea sounds dangerous, maybe even a little creepy, given that these drones will have cameras. So far, the Federal Aviation Administration has resisted the idea. Swarms of computer-guided octocopters? As if the FAA doesn’t have enough to do.

But given the explosive growth of e-commerce, some experts say the shipping business is in for big changes. United Parcel Service, which traces its history to 1907, delivers more than 4 billion packages and documents a year. It operates more than 95,000 vehicles and 500 aircraft. The ubiquitous Brown is a $55 billion-plus-a-year business. And, like Amazon, UPS is reportedly looking into drones. So is Google. More and more e-commerce companies are making a point of delivering things quickly the old-fashioned way — with humans.

Some dreamers in the technology industry are dreaming even bigger. It won’t be just drones, they insist. Robots and autonomous vehicles — think Google’s driverless car — could also disrupt the delivery business.

Milk to your doorstep?

“As cities become more automated, you’re going to start to see on-demand delivery systems that look like small delivery vehicles and can bring you whatever you want to wherever you are,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and a member of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. “Rather than go to the store to buy some milk, a robot or drone will go to a warehouse and get it for you, then deliver it.”

Smith said these delivery vehicles would come in all shapes and sizes. Some might be able to scurry down alleyways and avoid traffic. Others could be refrigerated to store food.

Brad Templeton, a futurist and a member of the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the current systems for delivery — “with the exception of pizza” — were too cumbersome and expensive for today’s online shoppers. Autonomous vehicles, including drones, promise a faster, cheaper option.

“The cost of use will be pennies on the dollar compared to today’s delivery systems,” Templeton said. This, he added, could very quickly eat into the business of many delivery companies.

“None of the horse and carriage companies of the past ended up becoming automobile companies today,” said Templeton, who is also a consultant on the Google team designing a driverless car.

Plenty of challenges

The roadblocks, real and potential, are significant. Safety is one worry. Another is current technology. Drones like the ones showcased by Amazon are electric and are estimated to be able to carry only small packages weighing less than five pounds.

Hal Bennett, a drone researcher, has a possible answer for that. He wants to build drones powered by tiny jet engines rather than electric ones. He says they could carry 50- and 100-pound packages 45,000 feet up at 250 miles an hour. While his drones are still in a research phase, and very much under wraps, Bennett said the possibilities were endless.

“Imagine you’re climbing around in Yosemite and you decide you want a Burger King hamburger. You just order it on your GPS,” Bennett said.

Many people probably don’t want to imagine that. Drones over El Capitan? Delivering, of all things, fast food?

Then again, pizzerias began routine deliveries only in the 1950s, reflecting the rise of another bit of technology: the automobile. Then, in the ’60s, a man who started with one pizzeria in Ypsilanti, Mich., made quick delivery a priority. His name was Thomas Monaghan. The company: Domino’s.

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