amazon drones

Amazon drones and the hype machine mistakenly fueling the drone industry

The following is a modified version of a piece originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire version here.

Amazon.com on Wednesday announced that it had made its first drone delivery to a customer.

The  drone flight delivered a 4.7 pound package, taking 13 minutes to cover about 2 miles, flying from an Amazon warehouse over the English countryside to a landing pad placed in a customer’s yard. The story is all told in a neatly packaged video produced by Amazon that shows the warehouse and a man ordering the package, then walking out to his yard to receive it from a landing pad. Inside? A Fire TV and a bag of popcorn.

The news was covered as “a major step for drone delivery” as outlets touted how drone delivery “just became a reality.”

The reality is that Amazon’s drone delivery service currently services only two customers. Over the next several months it will expand to dozens who live near the company’s warehouse.

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Now let me preface what I’m about to say by acknowledging that I think drone delivery is fantastic. It would be great to be able to drop vaccines to hospitals located in areas where poor road infrastructure makes it cumbersome to get there. It would be fantastic for an organ to be transplanted from one patient at a hospital in Oakland across the bay (while avoiding traffic on the Bay Bridge) to a patient in a hospital in San Francisco.

There are many roadblocks to drone delivery, from improving battery life and weight capacity, to sorting out sense and avoid, to combatting the public’s idea that we can just shoot drones down. We need to keep moving forward and overcome the obstacles. We can overcome the obstacles.

But the issue here is that despite loads of press celebrating every “first drone delivery milestone,” drone delivery hasn’t come much farther than the first documented drone delivery — TacoCopter in 2011.


I started catching onto how overhyped the drone delivery industry was after perhaps the third press release I received from drone delivery startup Flirtey.

Flirtey has a habit of making a big, media-friendly announcement of its delivery “firsts” including the first-ship-to-shore drone delivery, the first FAA-approved drone delivery to a customer’s home, the first urban drone delivery. Most recently Flirtey announced a partnership with Domino’s Pizza Enterprises Limited to create the first-ever drone pizza delivery service. The thing is, it can only deliver to buildings within 1 mile of a single store in Whangaparaoa, New Zealand. As of the end of November, it had made four deliveries since the original launch, according to a Domino’s spokesman. You can hardly call that a drone delivery service.

Meanwhile, according to investors and drone experts, hype and headline-grabbing experiments like Flirtey’s, Amazon’s and those of other big names like Walmart and Google— could distract from more substantive, potentially lifesaving opportunities for the technology.

Logan Campbell, CEO of drone consulting firm Aerotas, says drone delivery has a viable future delivering high value, urgently-needed items, like a heart transplant being shipped to a hospital. For now, though, obstacles including laws and financial realities, obscure the long path to widespread drone delivery, and there has been little documented movement toward it in more than five years.

“It’s not a business, it’s a science fair project,” said Campbell. “It’s not a step toward a viable, independent business project. I say that with the perspective that science fair projects can be a great thing.”

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In July 2011, a startup called TacoCopter successfully documented the first drone deliveries — tacos, of course. Within a week, TacoCopter was viral goldestablishing the legitimacy of the ideaand a pattern for the fledgling industry.

TacoCopter did not become a more fully-fledged commercial operation, partially because strict Federal Aviation Administration rules made drone delivery illegal — which is still an obstacle. Its founders now say TacoCopter was never intended to deliver tacos: They were a crowd-pleasing placeholder to prove that drones could deliver high-value items.amazon prime air flirted hype drone delivery

Since then, startups and major corporations have poured money into drone delivery, with delivery companies partnering with high-profile retailers and other organizations. Amazon made headlines in 2013 when Chief Executive Jeff Bezos announced on 60 Minutes that it would be using drones to deliver packages. Three years later, it is touting an extremely limited drone delivery service.

Other companies have also touted drone delivery services. McDonald’s has suggested using drones to deliver food to customers’ cars as they drive down the highway; and Coca-Cola KO, -1.32%  once used drones to bring boxes of Coke cans to construction workers in Singapore.

Its founders may not have intended it, but TacoCopter created the blueprint for selling drone delivery to the public: Drones doing cell tower inspections or land surveying don’t make headlines. Flying tacos do.

“Drones bringing tacos captured the imagination of people,” Skylogic Research founder Colin Snow said. “They created a vision. But reality sets in for the majority of people when they recognize it’s a business that has to scale and make money.”

The reality is, drone delivery — as evidenced by Amazon delivery a package just down the road in a sparsely populated area in a carefully controlled environment — hasn’t come much further than TacoCopter did in 2011, despite massive amounts of technological leaps in the broader drone industry.

While consumer drones are getting cheaper and enterprise drones continue to serve land surveyors, building inspectors, and first responders, the drone delivery industry is relying on a whole lot of hype, but not a lot of substance.

3 thoughts on “Amazon drones and the hype machine mistakenly fueling the drone industry”

  1. I have watched the progress of drone delivery systems.

    The important point is that the deliveries merely comply with the controlling influences of each country’s drone aviation regulators. Hence the slow but safe progress by the companies involved.

    Many emergency deliveries and aid deliveries are in remote or devastated and uncontrolled areas. So carefully controlled trials are unnecessary.
    Nevertheless, the international aid agencies have jointly developed a code of good practice for such work.

    Also, where appropriate they have helped countries to develop regulatory frameworks for drone aviation

  2. I would also bring to attention that large companies.. ie AMAZON and PIZZA HUT that are helping to push laws that stop casual drone pilots from exploiting the skies! Yes they do not want little private drones flying it what they want as THEIR private airspace. As a freestyle FPV drone pilot, with thousands of hrs flight time, this “lobbying” by big companies, is unacceptable. Little guys do not have the $ to lobby the idiots in government. All in favor of mutually beneficial laws, not one sided big corporate oligarchy.

  3. Good comment by Campbell. Too few drone projects end up as a repeatable product that can actually be used reliably on a daily basis.
    These one off publicity stunts only show about 80 percent of the required functionality, the remaining 20 percent is the hard bit and you can be sure there is an off-camera human making it happen.

    The choreographed publicity stunts create the impression that it’s actually happening on a large scale, and for other drone companies with real, usable, practical products, it becomes an uphill battle convincing customers and investors to invest in something practical that works rather than purchase something fantastic that doesn’t exist.

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