Amazon Prime Air: Rounding up the skepticism on drones

In an interview aired Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes," Amazon.com founder Jeffrey Bezos outlined his latest plan for using drones to deliver packages in as little as 30 minutes. This video, produced by Amazon, shows a prototype in action. (Disclosure: Bezos owns The Washington Post.) (Natalie Jennings/The Washington Post)

Amazon grabbed plenty of attention on Cyber Monday after its announcement of plans to deliver packages via drones. But why would a tight-lipped company suddenly open up about a program that is four or five years away? Was it all a PR stunt, and is the drone delivery even possible? Here’s a look at some reactions:

Whether or not the drone program succeeds, Amazon wins by looking innovative. Bloomberg’s Brad Stone writes:

The aerial drone is actually the perfect vehicle — not for delivering packages, but for evoking Amazon’s indomitable spirit of innovation.

Many customers this holiday season are considering the character of the companies where they spend their hard-earned dollars. Amazon would rather customers consider the new products and inventions coming down the pipeline and not the ramifications of its ever-accelerating, increasingly disruptive business model.

The drones are a case of prelobbying. Kevin Roose explains in New York magazine:

By unveiling a huge drone program in progress, [Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is] sending a message to the FAA regulators and Senate committees who are currently considering how unmanned aircraft can be used commercially. And that message is: Don’t even think about getting in our way. By floating a teaser about the drone program, and allowing the public to freak out about it, he’s showing regulators how popular such a scheme would be, and how much backlash they’d face if they outlawed it.

Amazon is diving headfirst into ostentatious R&D for image making. As Wonkblog’s Lydia DePillis details:

Amazon in particular could use the help: It’s still not profitable and needs to remind its ever-permissive investors that all its crazy investments in warehouses and robots will prepare it for eventual world domination.

Deliveries in cities will be extremely difficult. Doug Aamoth writes in Time:

I live in the middle of Boston on a narrow street with a steep incline that’s blanketed overhead by power lines. There’s nowhere except a thin strip of sidewalk for a drone to drop a package in front of my house, yet we have a nice, enclosed breezeway for FedEx, UPS and the mailman to leave packages.

I have a tiny, tiny plot o’ land in the back of my house, but for most of the year, there’s a big patio umbrella covering about 80% of the land-able surface area. Ideally, Amazon’s drone would instead drop packages on this flat rooftop that sits outside my third-floor home office.

Could a drone behead someone?

This Taiwanese animation features just that scenario. As Matt Waite, who founded the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, told The Switch, “It’s all fun and games until little Sally loses a finger.”

Don’t expect drones till 2020. But Amazon may really be trying to dominate the commercial drone marketFrom Christopher Mims on Quartz:

So if Amazon can become the first company with significant resources to invest in consumer drones, it could corner the market on cheap unmanned aerial vehicles the way it’s cornering the market on cheap computing power. And so far, investors have rewarded Bezos for putting long-term, wide-ranging ambition before short-term profits.Which means that however distant they are right now from Amazon’s core business, drones could become a much larger part of it.

Ground vehicles, not flying robots are the future. Say’s The Switch’s Timothy Lee:

Flying robots probably won’t be the only automated delivery technology entering the market in the coming decade. They’ll have to compete against self-driving vehicles that drive around on the ground. And ground-based delivery robots may be the winners in the long run.

And then there’s this, which appears to be the most popular tweet of the day referring to Amazon’s drones:

Related: Everything you need to know about Amazon’s new delivery drones

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland · December 2, 2013