The revelation that Amazon is working on its own delivery drones swept across the Internet like a thundering herd of bumblebees. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO said that delivery drones are four or five years off. Many other commentators heckled this projection, saying that delivery by drone is at least a decade off: The problems are too big to overcome. Drones are dangerous. Blades can put out eyes and falling drones can kill people. Drones run out of power too quickly and have limited range. Mere mortals cannot operate drones. Drones would run into each other. Drones would violate Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
All of these objections are completely true (I pointed out some of them in my Street Fight column about drone delivery in August). As is the assessment that widespread delivery drones are probably a decade off. Self-driving cars are now legal in a handful of states but widespread autopilot for consumer vehicles remains a number of years off. Rather than call out Amazon as a publicity hound (probably true) or blindly disparage efforts to make delivery drones possible, perhaps we can be more constructive. Namely, how could we spur drone development to eliminate the various hazards and risks of these nascent microtransport platforms?
There is one obvious example of how to make this happen. DARPA quite effectively spurred rapid gains in autonomous vehicle development with its Vehicle Challenges contests. As Burkhard Bilger so ably recounts in a recent New Yorker article about the Google Car, the first year of the contest a few entrants from highly qualified institutions (CMU, Stanford) with big bucks failed to come close to winning the challenge. The second year, numerous teams competed successfully, including a team of a bunch of high school kids and another that took their primary guidance algorithms from rather generic video game software code. Some of these less prominent teams came within a hair’s breadth of successful completion of the trials to get into the finals.
It was an amazing display. The idea of a self-driving car is so cool that with a bit of nudging and a good format for innovation, the crowd took over and spurred huge amounts of progress in a relatively short span (a number of years as opposed to decades).
There are obvious parallels between this success story and delivery drones. First, the cool factor is similar. Engineers (pros and hobbyists) love to play with drones. Period. Give them more of a reason to tinker and they will oblige you. Second, there are similar classes of hardware problems that might require ingenious solutions. How to make rotors that are rigid enough to cut air but soft enough not to hurt a person, for example, is a really interesting engineering problem. Likewise, figuring out how to extend battery range. Lastly, there is a strong social imperative to make this happen. Minimizing last-mile traffic for small-item delivery would reduce congestion, reduce carbon output, improve street safety, and make cities and relatively concentrated environs more liveable (rural micro-delivery drones, of course are much less simple to figure out.
If Amazon really wanted to spur things on, maybe Jeff Bezos could set up a series of challenges, working with DARPA. They could perhaps use U. S. government facilities like simulated urban environments on bases as contest venues. The FAA could chip in with providing specific guidance on how to make drones urban airspace legal for commercial purposes. Bezos could underwrite the contest. All IP created would remain the property of the participants.
Making fun of drones is easy. Poking fun at Jeff Bezos easier still. Solving the real problems inherent in micro-delivery via drones is hard…but doable. Ironically, solving these problems could actually give Mom-and-Pop stores the ability to compete with AWS on a more level playing field. I’m all for that. So let the Drone Games begin. (h/t to Christian Sanz of Skycatch, one of the leading commercial drone startups).
Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of Businessweek.com. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every once in a while on Street Fight.