Amazon Prime Air: A Naughty or Nice Idea?
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Everywhere you go!”
One sure-fire way to know that the holiday spirit – or rather holiday consumerism – is in the air is by the volume of “brown paper packages” showing up on doorsteps and in office mailrooms all across the country from Zappos, Rue La La, department stores chains and, of course, Amazon.
Speaking of what’s “in the air” at Amazon, company CEO Jeff Bezos caused quite a stir this past week when he announced on “60 minutes,” that Amazon wants to start delivering packages using small, unmanned drones called “octocopters” in less than 30 minutes. Through a service dubbed Amazon Prime Air, GPS-guided drones would be able to carry packages up to 5 pounds within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon fulfillment center, which accounts for 86 percent of Amazon’s current inventory.
“It won’t work for everything,” Bezos said. “We won’t deliver kayaks or table saws this way.”
Bezos says Amazon Prime Air would take several years to come to fruition, but optimistically, he said Prime Air could be ready for primetime by 2015.
Since we’re in the midst of the holiday season, let’s take a look at the good and the bad about Amazon Prime Air, using the highly unscientific “Santa Claus method,” evaluating the idea based on a “naughty” or “nice” scale.
Let’s start with the nice.
- Deliveries in 30 minutes or less. What’s not to love about going online and ordering books, clothes and other trinkets and doodads, then getting your packages delivered in 30 minutes or less? Talk about a lifesaver for a last-minute birthday gift or forgotten anniversary. Information on the Amazon website proclaims that one day, “Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.” Amazon Prime Air is “fascinating as an idea and probably very hard to execute,” says Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, who sees Bezos as an unconventional thinker. “If he could really deliver something you order within 30 minutes, he would rewrite the rules of online retail.”
- Amazon ingenuity. If anyone can pull off Prime Air, it’s Bezos. In 1995, with investments from family and friends, he began operating Amazon as an online bookseller out of a Seattle garage. Since then, Amazon has grown to become the world’s largest online retailer, “selling everything from shoes to groceries to diapers and power tools.” The company already has revived the business model of ordering groceries online for home delivery with AmazonFresh, which has programs running in Seattle (Amazon’s home) and Los Angeles. Media and social media reports are speculating that AmazonFresh could be launching in San Francisco soon, with AmazonFresh vans being spotted in the city. Amazon is forever on the cutting edge of what’s next. Could Amazon Prime Air be it?
What’s on the naughty list to keep Prime Air from becoming a reality?
- FAA regulations. Probably the biggest hurdle that Amazon faces is the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently limits the use of drones in the United States to public entities, such as police forces and hobbyists. That means that drones can’t be used in return for payment. However, the FAA plans to have regulations in place to govern commercial use by 2015.
- The fear facture. Drone deliveries raise a slew of concerns, including air traffic safety, homeland security and privacy. Can you image Cyber Monday 2015 with thousands of drones meandering overhead in your city? “There are technical and legal obstacles, too – similar to Google’s experimental driverless car. How do you design a machine that safely navigates the roads and skies without hitting everything? And, if an accident occurs, who’s legally liable? Delivering packages by drone might be impossible in a city like Washington, D.C., which has many no-fly zones,” according to the Associated Press.
- A logistical nightmare. James Bell of the Guardian summed up some of the logistical and technical obstacles Amazon Prime Air faces by saying, “the technology to make the drones operational in any sense is not yet in place. It’s all well and good for the unmanned vehicles to fly to a particular GPS site, but how does it then find the package’s intended recipient? How is the transfer of the package enacted? What stops someone else stealing the package along the way? And what happens when next door’s kid decides to shoot the drone with his BB rifle?”
- A Publicity Stunt? Some commentators, technology experts and cynics have declared Amazon Prime Air nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to tee up Cyber Monday shopping. Marcus Wohlsen wrote for “Wired” that “the world’s largest online retailer duped ‘60 Minutes’ and a fawning Charlie Rose — who doesn’t appear to know the meaning of the word ‘vaporware’ — into turning the venerable CBS news mag into the spearhead of Amazon’s latest and greatest Cyber Monday marketing campaign.”
Amazon Prime Air: The future of retail? A logistical nightmare? A pipe dream? The verdict is still out. But I wouldn’t bet against Jeff Bezos and Amazon.
What do you think about the concept behind Amazon Prime Air?