Jeff Bezos, CEO of the global online retail behemoth Amazon, is a man of many talents. Over the years he has been called many things. Now it seems like he deserves a new title. Dronacharya. Appearing on 60 Minutes, the popular newsmagazine programme of the American television network CBS, Bezos announced that Amazon hopes to ship purchases from its website via drones by 2015, which would mean cutting delivery times down to 30 minutes. Bezos further explained that he expects these drones, a fancy name for flying robots, would be fully autonomous and would fly to pre-set GPS coordinates delivering packets no bigger than 2.5 kilos.
Amazon is traditionally as secretive as Apple. Its PR department is notorious for being very uncommunicative. And unlike Google which is always throwing around crazy ideas, Amazon never ever lets out what it wants to do. So when Bezos popped up on the television to announce drone deliveries, which gave instant worldwide publicity to an otherwise boring programe just a day before the biggest online shopping day in the US called Cyber Monday, Internet responded with calling it a publicity stunt. The announcement was also met with derision and has produced thousands of jokes and parodies online. Publicity stunt or not, the future as envisioned by Bezos is entirely plausible within the next few years and at the same time has many hurdles to cross.
Contrary to what has been widely publicised, the idea for drone deliveries is not an Amazon invention. Zookal, a textbook rental startup in Australia, is already delivering textbooks within two to three minutes using its fleet of six drones. Shunfeng Express, China’s biggest parcel delivery service, is already said to be delivery using drones. However, Amazon Prime Air, the name given to the drone service, faces many obstacles even if it is ready to be launched commercially in the US and later in the rest of the world. While Amazon with its immense lobbying talent can be expected to sway the Federal Aviation Authority into lifting the ban on commercial use of drones, other issues can prove to be extremely problematic. Safety concerns like crashes, or cuts through the drones’ revolving blades, or the possibility that the drones can be brought down using simple missiles like rocks or sophisticated hacking, the intricacies of delivering packages in highly populated areas can all prove problematic.
Nevertheless, Amazon Prime Air puts the spotlight on a rapidly growing industry. These drones, officially called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, have been in the public psyche through their military use by the American government. Lately though, drones have left the battlefield to be very useful in our day-to-day lives. Covering the protests in Thailand, filming Bollywood flicks like Satya 2, spraying cops, modelling the paths of oil spills, tracking marijuana cops in forests, drones have found their place in part of civilian life and are still continuing to do so. Further, smaller drones, commercially available for as little as a thousand dollars, are seeing uses like filming weddings and climbing expeditions by even laymen who are not very tech-savvy. By some estimates, the market for these commercially available drones has reached $5.2 billion and is expected to double in the next few years.
Once used exclusively by hobbyists, plummeting prices and good commercial availability are leading to a proliferation of drones which could reach a critical point in the next few years raising concerns about issues like terrorism and privacy. Amazon Prime Air, if it at all arrives, could end up being one of the better organised services in the skies crowded with drones.
The writer is a tech geek. Email: email@example.com