In December of 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company plans to create a new delivery service using unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – called Prime Air. The devices were labeled as “octocopters”.
Bezos told 60 Minutes that the drones would be ready to go into action in about four or five years, and of course when federal FAA regulations governing commercial use of drones changes. Coincidentally, FAA regulations patently lack much of anything governing the use of commercial drones. However, at the end of December, the FAA selected six states as test sites for the use of such drone systems.
In its first of many conflicting statements, Amazonissued a public statement at the end of December that Amazon was, “…ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place.” This conflicted with CEO Jeff Bezos prediction of four to five years.
In reality, the technology isn’t even “science fiction” as the company quipped. It’s an utterly ridiculous concept with so many practical problems that most technically-minded observers have already brushed off the announcement as nothing more than a publicity stunt, perfectly timed following the publication of Businessweek reporter Brad Stone’s unflattering book about Jeff Bezos titled, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.
Misdirection Completely Fooled the Media
Following the publication of the book, Jeff’s own wife MacKenzie Bezos wrote a scathing review of the book on Amazon, claiming “factual inaccuracies”. Amazon’s VP of Global Communications also criticized the book. Nevertheless, the book became a best-seller and even won the Business Book of the Year award from Financial Times and Goldman Sachs.
The 60 Minutes video revealed another glaring contradiction, and further hinted that the unveiling of the Drone was only a publicity ploy. When Charlie Rose asked Jeff Bezos, “Are you working on a set-top box that will allow people to watch streaming video and not have cable television?”
Jeff immediately replied, “I can’t answer that question. [laugh] I don’t want to talk about the future road map of our devices. So, I have to just ask you to stay tuned.”
Yet, Jeff was more than happy to have Charlie visit an Amazon distribution center where a pair of Amazon Prime drones were carefully laid out on a display table, and then Charlie was shown a carefully crafted video showing the Amazon drone allegedly flying a package from a distribution center, out the big bay doors, across a field and gently onto the front walkway of someone’s house.
Completely Contrived Publicity Video
It was clear from the final segment that the whole point of the interview was to unveil this “big surprise”. The video itself, when carefully reviewed with a critical eye, has countless holes.
The drone, positioned over the end of a conveyor where the package arrives, is lifted from the conveyor and is next seen floating out a big bay door into the sky. Having worked for over 15 years in a manufacturing facility, I can tell you that maneuvering a drone from a conveyor belt inside an enclosed facility, through the facility and out the shipping bay doors without crashing into something or someone, is a silly notion in itself.
Yet, the video continued. The next scene, the drone is flying across an open field, maybe 10 feet off the ground and toward an open body of water, and then suddenly cuts to the drone landing on someone’s walkway.
This little clip raised countless problems from anyone with even an ounce of experience with piloting such light aircraft.
1. The field clip was on a perfectly sunny and calm day – no wind to be seen anywhere.
2. The clip immediately switched from an open field to the front door landing site. Giving the impression of a video shot as the craft was controlled from the ground.
Then, in the interview, Jeff continued on and made an even more preposterous claim, stating that the drones were autonomous. He said, “You give em instructions of which GPS coordinates to go to, and they take off and they fly to those GPS coordinates.”
Autonomous drone technology exists, but not within the parameters that Jeff describes for this service.
Another ludicrous statement that is not at all achievable with the current state of drone technology. State of the art military drones are piloted by skilled pilots via satellite communications systems. Jeff speaks of the Amazon Prime drones as though the technology to do what he claims already exists, when even the military – with its deep pockets – have no such technology.
The technical problems with these claims are many.
1. The clip showed no demo of the craft piloting its way through a populated urban area, only a deserted and empty field. This was for good reason – an urban area includes pedestrians, power lines and buildings. There are countless obstructions for the drone to collide with.
2. The drones would be virtually impossible to fly in heavy rain, heavy wind, snow, sleet, and many other conditions other than a perfectly calm, clear day.
3. Navigating a flying drone through an enclosed distribution center with employees in the area is an engineering task all itself – this part of the flight alone is glossed over in the video.
4. One drone manufacturer called Height-Tech, with electric drones very similar to the Amazon ones, advises that its electric drones generally have a 5-40 minute flight time with battery packs fully loaded. This flight time depends on wind, flight task, and net load weight. Get this: If approximately 2 pounds are added to the load, the flight time is cut in half. Jeff claimed the Amazon drones can carry up to a 5 pound package. Battery demand would be extremely heavy – conflicting with his “10 mile radius” claim.
Media Falls For the Ploy
Following the interview, the story went wild on the Internet and throughout the news networks.
–> Geek.com immediately interviewed FedEx CEO Fred Smith to see if Fred was nervous about Amazon’s delivery drones putting FedEx out of business.
–> LA Times claimed that Amazon had “demonstrated” the drone delivery service to 60 Minutes. False…they showed 60 minutes a video and two drones sitting on a table.
–> CNN Money published an article titled “Amazon says drone deliveries are the future”.
–> USA Today collected quotes from TechCrunch, CNET and Mother Jones, all about Amazon’s ability to pull off the technical feat, how Amazon was “sending a message” to FAA regulators, and a comment from Mother Jones about what device might serve as a proper drone-destroyer.
The Internet was buzzing with talk of the awesome new technology that doesn’t even exist, and won’t for many years to come.
The one person who hit the nail on the head was Ebay CEO John Donahue who told Bloomberg TV in response to the Amazon announcement, “We’re not focusing on long-term fantasies, we’re focusing on things we can do today.”