You can’t watch the video promoting the new Amazon drone delivery service without checking the date for signs of 1 April. While superficially absurd, there is something distinctly unsettling about this short film. It’s as though someone has made a satirical treatment of our consumer age, a reshaping of Chaplin’s Modern Times.
The Charlie in this video is Jeremy Clarkson. He describes the process of the drone delivery service, as a parcel is prepared in an Amazon warehouse located at their research base ‘somewhere outside Cambridge’. ‘A miracle of modern technology is despatched,’ he tells us, as the warehouse roof opens like the top of a volcano in a Bond film. ‘It is an Amazon drone and after rising vertically like a helicopter to nearly 400 ft this amazing hybrid design assumes a horizontal orientation and becomes a streamlined and fast airplane.’
It does too. Actually it looks like a flying pallet, which is fitting given it was knocked up by a logistics company. Hopefully its ‘sense and avoid technology’ will make sure those Cambridge spires remain intact before it plonks a parcel on your lawn as proud as an egg, then executes another vertical take off and whooshes back to base to land on Blofeld’s knee for a good stroke.
The drone currently under trial can fly for up to ten miles and carry packages weighing up to 5lb. The aim is to offer a delivery service within 30 minutes of the customer ordering. It has long been a dream of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to have a fleet of such drones swooping all over the world’s airwaves, bringing real-time levels of service to the remote shopping experience. It is as close as you can get to sending tangible goods by email attachment without resorting to Star Trek ‘beam me up’ fictions. Or 3D printing.
Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has a close eye on drone development and has bent a few of their rules to allow the Amazon trials, as they might apply to you and me, rules such as the one allowing a single operative to be in charge of multiple vehicles and operating them out of sight. Which is a pity, because flying a team of drones around a blind corner sounds like fun and I’d quite like a go at it.
‘We want to enable the innovation that arises from the development of drone technology by safely integrating drones into the overall aviation system,’ said Tim Johnson, the CAA’s head of policy. ‘These tests by Amazon will help inform our policy and future approach.’ Whether the CAA genuinely ‘wants’ to enable drone innovation, or feels that it just won’t be able to stop it is a moot point, but it looks like the Amazon fleet is going to be the flying guinea pig here, and get the advantage on the technology. In the US, the green light has just been given to Google to test its own fleet, so the delivery drone wars are starting to heat up.
Time will tell whether delivery by drone will take off, though I have my suspicions that both Amazon and the CAA are not so much launching a drone as flying a kite here. But Amazon is serious enough about it to have filed patents to use existing structures such as church spires as docking and delivery stations in built-up environments. That should bring in a few extra quid for the local parish coffers.
If the Amazon trials are successful, it is unlikely they will be allowed to have a monopoly. It is a pretty safe bet that the drones themselves will become a part of a company’s marketing strategy. Will Fortnum & Mason hampers be delivered at a far more regal pace, perhaps carried by a couple of blimps? There is also much potential for chaos. In the near future, we may find ourselves walking down the pavement with our feet firmly on a civilised earth, but just above our heads the drone delivery wars will rage. It will be like the wild west, as next door’s weekly shop from Sainsbury’s flies past your head.
I think we should stop this madness before it starts. Speaking as a technophobe, I really don’t think there is anything that Amazon sells that is so important I would need it within 30 minutes. Let’s not over-complicate things. All these drones will do is put postmen and women out of work, in the same way Google’s driverless cars will put drivers out of work. And don’t think the middle classes are safe; the robots are already coming after bankers, doctors and lawyers’ jobs.
Soon there will be nobody left earning enough money to buy all this lovely stuff they are so kindly making for us and delivering which such novel and ruthless efficiency. There will just be the Jeff Bezos of this world, sitting in their lairs counting their money, and dreaming their big city dreams of an unmanned future. And causing gridlock in the skies.