It’s no secret that Amazon is serious about delivery drones. On its website, the company predicts, “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today,” and it also boasts, “From a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to put Prime Air into service as soon as the necessary regulations are in place.” The timeline for that? Soon, “as early as sometime in 2015,” thanks in large part to the encouragement of Amazon itself.
That Amazon is exploring the idea of delivery drones is at once unexpected and ridiculous. When the company announced in 2013 that it would be testing drones, many in the media derided the decision. Wired, for example, said, “The truth is that no one who buys discounted merchandise on Amazon today will have it delivered by drone, and such deliveries won’t happen for years — if they happen at all.” At the time, it seemed impossible that drone delivery would make any economic sense, especially for a company already operating on a thin margin. The technological and regulatory hurdles were simply thought to be too great.
Moreover, as Facebook Director of Product Sam Lessin said in response to the announcement: “Drones (and self driving cars) are the key to the ‘sharing’ economy where people don’t have to ‘own’ anything anymore. They can just request things when they need them, get them instantly, and return them when they are done.” Wired argues that this makes drones somewhat antithetical to Amazon’s existing “monolith” model.
But Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appears to be committed to drones, regardless of the obstacles. In his 2013 letter to shareholders, he said, “The Prime Air team is already flight testing our 5th and 6th generation aerial vehicles, and we
are in the design phase on generations 7 and 8.”
Lessin, for his part, says that companies like Amazon “will eventually stop being ‘retailers’ with ‘distribution’ and become local-physical-cloud providers (whether or not they ‘own’ the underling goods they are warehousing and delivering).” By this reasoning, drones make sense, and in fact are essential if Amazon wants to build a sufficiently dynamic and flexible delivery system. The ambition of Prime Air is not just same day — it’s 30 minutes. With that kind of turnaround, you could buy a pair of shoes, try them on, send them back, and get another between lunch and dinner without ever leaving your house.
Amazon isn’t alone in its effort to commercialize drones, either. Google recently announced that its X lab has spent the last two years working on a delivery drone, and Astro Teller, who heads the lab, seems to be aligned with the “local-physical-cloud provider” idea articulated by Lessin.
“What excited us from the beginning was that if the right thing could find anybody just in the moment that they need it, the world might be radically better place,” Teller told The Atlantic in an interview. Teller frames delivery drones as the next logical, though radical, step in the evolution of delivery. At one point in time, the fastest way to get a package from point A to B was via the Pony Express. Today, it’s FedEx overnight. Tomorrow, why not something like Amazon Prime Air?
The answer, of course, is because there are still enormous technological, regulatory, and social hurdles to overcome. And in the short term, these will slow down the adoption of the technology. In the long run, however, it seems inevitable that the market will accept the radical change that Amazon and Google are already investing in. And if we want to know why, all we have to do is look at what the arc of technological innovation and adoption has looked like over the past several decades and see that there is simply too much momentum to stop the mass commercialization of drones.
The great and terrifying thing about today is the rate at which things are changing, and it’s this momentum more than anything else that ensures that functional technology, however radical, will be adopted.
Take a look at the video above for example. It’s a clip from a 1974 interview with Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction author, inventor, and all-around mad genius who is perhaps best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Forty years ago, when the interview was filmed, the Internet as we know and love it today was still science fiction — hell, computing as we know and love it today was still science fiction. Apple Computer Inc. wouldn’t be founded for another two years, and the TCP/IP protocol suite wouldn’t be formalized for another seven.
Still, Clarke predicted the arc of technological development and adoption over a generation with uncanny accuracy. Granted, the United States was wallowing in the wake of the dot-com bubble in 2001, but Clarke’s read was still good. Personal computing and the Internet hadn’t just arrived, they were exploding, and the digital revolution was well underway.
Clarke’s prediction seems quaint in retrospect, but it’s actually an incredibly valuable reference point. By looking back, we can see how far we have come, and by seeing how far we have come, we can imagine where we might go. Cisco estimates that the number of Internet-connected devices in the world went from a small handful in 1974 to 500 million in 2003, and by 2010, there were 12.5 billion. Cisco estimates that number will increase to 25 billion in 2015 and to 50 billion in 2020. Measured another way, that’s 0.08 connected devices per person in 2003 to 6.58 in 2020.
You don’t have to be as uniquely prescient as Clarke to intuit this trend, but Clarke’s prediction wasn’t powerful simply because it was broadly accurate. Clarke’s vision was powerful because it was shared by many people — and most importantly, it was shared by the right people, those who had the power to help make it a reality.
Those people were engineers and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison. They and thousands of others became consumed by a kind of technological manifest destiny. They were united by the same broad vision of how the new technological frontier could change the world, and it was in large part thanks to their efforts that the vision articulated by Clarke became a reality.
Today, the vision of a future in which delivery times are measured in minutes is shared by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Paige, and thousands of other engineers and entrepreneurs consumed by the same kind of technological manifest destiny that fueled the PC and Internet revolution. This means that there is more behind the development of delivery drones than a business plan — there’s a kind of cultural imperative. Back this imperative with the skill and resources of two of the largest technology companies on the planet, and it should come as no surprise if we see Amazon Prime Air drones as early as 2015.
Granted, there are very real concerns. In July, for example, International Policy Digest unpacked a number of problems with the idea of delivery drones, ranging from noise to safety to privacy. But just as the Internet was adopted despite problems such as safety and privacy, sufficiently functional commercial drones appear likely to be adopted, as well.