Amazon’s drones and the rise of ostentatious R&D

Amazon's splashy "60 Minutes" announcement of its plan to revolutionize package delivery -- via drone, naturally -- has already started running into skepticism. Despite Amazon's familiarity with the Federal Aviation Administration, it'll be a long time before such vehicles will be cleared for commercial use, Wired points out. Drone opponents are threatening to shoot them out of the sky. And is it really worth the cost of acquiring a big enough fleet of flying machines to deliver something in 20 minutes rather than 20 hours?

Imagine that. (@quantumpirate)

Delivery-by-robot may or may not be the future of commerce. If it is, it's certainly a long way off. So, why would Amazon start talking about it now?

It's a tactic more and more companies are using these days: research and development as image-making.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, innovation was part of the image of iconic American companies. Think Bell Labs, which took advantage of the comfort of its regulated monopoly to fund research projects that could go on for years, and spun off all kinds of ideas that became useful for society writ large.

These days, however, U.S. firms aren't investing in coming up with new ideas as much as they used to, as the Bureau of Economic Analysis' intellectual property index has tracked. Countries like Finland, Israel, Sweden and South Korea now spend more on R&D than the United States does, as a percentage of their GDP. That's led some to fret that America's innovative juices have stopped flowing, which bodes ill for the economy of tomorrow.


Meanwhile, the federal government has been spending less on research and development, as well:


In terms of R&D PR, however, American firms are leading the world. Companies that want to position themselves as part of that new economy are much louder about what they're doing to bring it about. Take eBay's Paypal, for example, which recently tackled the challenge of interplanetary commerce. Yes, commerce between planets. Or Google, which has proposed a grand plan to bring WiFi to the world with Internet balloons and also has a plan to solve death. It's by no means clear that any of these projects will come to fruition, but in the mean time, the companies get a nice publicity bump for thinking way, way outside the box -- taking moonshots, as the Googlers like to call them.

Not all moonshots are futile, of course. Google's self-driving car project is well on its way to implementation. But Google has also harnessed the power of perception: Other car companies have been working on autonomous vehicles for years but haven't talked about it quite as loudly. Now, "self-driving" and "Google" are nearly synonymous in the public imagination.

Ostentatious R&D has extended beyond the tech world, too. It seems like most companies these days have some kind of Silicon Valley innovation kitchen, like Walmart Labs, Ford Labs, Honda's Lab  -- even American Eagle Labs. Amazon's drone project is coming out of its own "Next-generation R&D" lab. And 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. ( Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)

These are fun experiments to think about. And, who knows, maybe they'll lead us forward to a better, more technologically enabled life. But until the real research dollars start flowing through the rest of the economy, it's not clear that the United States will maintain its tech dominance for much longer.

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)
Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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