Amazon to Use Drones to Deliver

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 12/3/2013 | 96 comments

David Wagner

Amazon will soon deliver tablets, clothes, or pretty much anything else you want in the same time it takes to get a pizza, and it might mean every retailer will need its own air force. Amazon says that, as soon as FAA regulations clear it (possibly by 2015), the company will experiment with delivering products weighing less than five pounds (86% of its offerings) in 30 minutes or less by drone.

The eight-rotor octocopter drones will pick up the merchandise from one of Amazon's many fulfillment centers and fly it to your front porch, like in this video.

Obviously, Amazon won't be doing this with all its packages, but it envisions this as a quick service for high-priority products and the potential future of the delivery business. There's a lot to be worked out with the FAA first, so we still don't know if brick-and-mortar retailers need to be worried. We do know one group of people who should be seriously worried: CIOs.

If retailers, restaurants (Chinese food by air, anyone?), and shipping companies start using drones, even in a limited fashion, guess who is going to have deploy them? CIOs. To make this work, some extensive changes will have to be made to the supply chain. There will need to be new, automated fulfillment processes and inventory management.

The drones themselves will require infrastructure changes, including communications, security, and programming. Something with your name on it would be flying around using remote signals. You wouldn't want it to be hijacked and turned into a weapon, would you? You wouldn't want drones to deliver your merchandise to the wrong house routinely and cost your company in lost merchandise. And the drones would be another thing to patch, maintain, and put on a refresh cycle.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, is this science fiction or a near-horizon technology about to change our lives? There are a few hurdles to overcome to make this a successful business proposition.

  • Safety: Drones have triple the accident rate of manned vehicles. There are multiple reasons for this. People fly drones remotely, and the interface is often harder to deal with than one for a manned craft. With drones flying via programming, they are prone to bugs. If you have hundreds of drones flying overhead in urban environments, you've got to make sure they are safe. A few high-profile crashes could end the whole idea.

  • Scalability: Retail-oriented drones would likely fly at lower altitudes, where commercial air traffic is not an issue. One drone in the air would be no big deal, but when dozens or hundreds of drones are flying around, it becomes an absolute issue. If delivery drones for the Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, Amazon, and every pizza joint in town were all crisscrossing the skies, they would need their own air traffic control system. Who would pay for it, and how would it work?

  • Perception: Some people immediately distrust drones, because they were used first in military operations. In fact, a town in Colorado is offering a bounty for anyone who shoots down drones flying over their airspace. It is entirely possible we'll see scenes like this one play out all over America.

  • Privacy: The nightmare scenario is that drones mounted with cameras will be flying through our neighborhoods recording everything they see as they make their way to their customer. Who would own that data? How would it be kept? Could it be used against us legally? Would they see into our bedrooms and bathrooms?

There are also questions surrounding cost and the feasibility of a business plan for delivering a single package. But as drone capabilities increase and costs fall (both are inevitable), the reality of drone delivery -- not to mention driverless vehicle delivery -- will draw nearer.

It seems almost inevitable that we will soon live in a world with hundreds of tiny drones flying through the air and serving us. Retail CIOs need to prepare for the changes to supply chains and communications infrastructure. Government CIOs need to prepare to track all these new potential threats to national security and to safety. Are you ready?

What do you think about retail drones? Will they be a new paradigm in shopping, or will they just crash and burn? How will we handle the influx of technology in our enterprises and government? Tell us below.

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