Amazon’s next attempt at world domination


They’re going to be doing deliveries by drone.

I don’t think I’ll live close enough to a distribution center for these to come buzzing by my house, so I’m not going to worry about them yet. I’m am remembering that in my younger days I was a deadly shot with a slingshot…I may have to start practicing.

I might change my pessimism about fleets of drones flitting about overhead, if they’re actually shown to represent an energy savings.

Comments

  1. Francisco Bacopa says

    Thirty minutes? I think most places thirty minutes from an Amazon warehouse are pretty rural. Cheap land, tax abatements, and all that. Maybe they can put a drone carrier ship in Galveston Bay to serve the Houston area.

  2. ChasCPeterson says

    I’m am remembering that in my younger days I was a deadly shot with a slingshot

    think what you could do with one of these

  3. thewhollynone says

    Like to see one of those drones deliver the 17 pounds of cat food Amazon sends me every month! A paperback book– maybe.

  4. robro says

    Oh, I see what’s wrong with this. Amazon would never send an order in a little plastic container slightly larger than the item. It would have to be a flimsy cardboard box at least 10 times larger than the item filled with 2 lbs of brown paper or perhaps lots of those air filled plastic baggies.d

  5. says

    There will be a market for anti-drone drones. This could get fun. CPUs are powerful enough to do sufficient image-recognition to be able to recognize another drone and fly into its propellor. Oops. So sad. Then I guess the next stage would be to build a drone that captures and collects other drones, then brings them home so they can be rendered for parts to make bigger mega-zombie drones…

  6. chigau (違う) says

    thewhollynone #8

    Like to see one of those drones deliver the 17 pounds of cat food…

    Golly!
    I’d like to see that, too!
    There’d be, like, a whole fleet of them!
    Flying in formation!
    It’d be awesome!

  7. chigau (違う) says

    See, Amazon never figured on the like of Marcus Ranum and elronxenu and carlie.
    Really an oversight, I think.

  8. Menyambal --- inesteemable says

    Well, if anybody can develop it, it might well be Amazon. But in that video, I noticed that the propeller blades were un-shrouded, which is an horrible accident waiting to happen. I also noticed that the orange plastic case was left with the customer—Shirley, they can make a cargo dispenser better than that. If that’s their current level of development, they are not thinking well.

    It’s going to be an option for special-delivery packages, I assume, of limited size, so no, not everything will be delivered by drone. Having an individual vehicle for each package will cost considerably more.

  9. Lofty says

    These drone thingies are massively useful where transport infrastructure is missing or busted. Where working roads and footpaths exist, not so much, energy efficiency and all that. Now a Google self drive car/van with an Asimo to toddle up the drive, OK. We’ll reserve the copter thing for feeding flood stranded campers and suchlike.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    I’m actually liking the idea that someone living under a tarp in the river-valley could get stuff from Amazon.

  11. David Wilford says

    I think they may want to consider the possibility of my dog or cat thinking they’ve been given a chance to practice their predatory skills.

  12. sqlrob says

    @carlie, #6

    Yeah, like those won’t get shot down and the goods stolen.

    Yeah, like that delivery truck won’t get followed and packages stolen off of porches.

  13. eigenperson says

    If they’re planning this for urban areas, I suspect it will last until one of them flies into someone’s face (or someone’s dog’s face) and inflicts horrifying injuries.

  14. says

    See, Amazon never figured on the like of Marcus Ranum and elronxenu and carlie.

    Actually, the idea of autonomous loitering optical-recognition anti-drone drones has occurred to a fair number of people, given the expense and vulnerability of US Predator drones.

  15. says

    I hate to be that guy, but I’m going to call this a fake. There is no way Amazon will actually go through with this system because of cost, safety and the likelihood of the drones being stolen. This is just a viral video campaign to drum up sales for “Cyber Monday”.

  16. eggmoidal says

    Fake? Nooooooo! Well, there goes my new plastic container collection. Guess I’ll just have to replace the tomato and spinach colored Tupperware the old fashioned way.

  17. brett says

    “Delivery by Drone” seems rather unlikely to be cost-effective compared to regular deliveries on the ground, especially if you could send theme by automated delivery cars. Maybe if you had to make deliveries to places where there aren’t reliable roads . . .

    I’m more annoyed that the announcement wasn’t a Kindle Phone, which would be convenient for me. Come on, Amazon – you’ve made tablets, but you don’t want to get into the smartphone market?

  18. Rip Steakface says

    I don’t care what everyone else thinks, I’m pumped for this. I have Amazon Prime and I commonly get stuff with it. LET’S DO THIS.

  19. says

    In Shanghai, until about a year or two ago, they used to deliver pies ( yup, real pukka English pies!) with drones. All was going swimmingly until the city government stepped in to quell complaints about the pie-in-the-sky delivery system. Aparently people were worrying that they would get big stryrofoam boxes raining on them.

    A bit sad that they closed the initiative down. I thought it was pretty cool.

  20. robro says

    Naked Bunny @#21

    To be fair, tiny, automated drones are probably less likely to damage a package than FedEx.

    Oh no! How will we get our freebies!!?? We just got an order with a big tin of something, but the tin was dented. The call went in immediately, a new one is on the way, and don’t bother returning the damaged one. Now we’ll have enough stuff to last the rest of our lives.

  21. krubozumo says

    I once bought a backup 7000 watt generator from Amazon. It weighs about 350 lbs. I wonder how that
    would work out. Who would pay for fixing the gigantic hole in my roof? BTW the generator is still a very
    servicable machine.

    Next up ballistic delivery systems express. We guarantee to deliver your order to any place on earth
    within 30 minutes. Crater no extra charge.

    “A screaming comes across the sky…”

  22. unclefrogy says

    a soft add or a viral add.
    think ordering on line think Amazon
    were on the edge we ship now!
    impractical in the extreme but it says amazon ships
    kind of reminiscent I think of a cell phone add from last year
    uncle frogy

  23. davem says

    Half an hour after delivery, a boy on a bike comes to take the plastic box back…

    I’ve seen model helicopter demonstrations where the aircraft flies upside down. So, can Amazon lay on a lawn-cutting service? That might sell like hot cakes.

  24. randay says

    The only immediate and foreseeable use of such drones would be a new way to deliver letter-bombs. The sender wouldn’t even have to leave it on the porch. He could just send it crashing through a window to blow up. The only way to stop them would be to shoot them down or if you feel threatened, to have your own interception drones, perhaps on your roof, to automatically intercept them and disable or blow them up in the air.

  25. hyphenman says

    @randay…

    I’ve been asking this question for sometime: is the secret service and Homeland Security prepared to deal with this threat?

  26. rogerfirth says

    I’m am remembering that in my younger days I was a deadly shot with a slingshot…I may have to start practicing.

    The exact same thought immediately came to my mind. Little delivery drones buzzing through the neighborhood would just be screaming “shoot me down!” I grew up on a cul de sac with 10 houses, and at one time each house had at least two teenage boys (ours had four — I think there were a total of four girls on the whole street). Most of us were armed quite well. I guarantee you, there would have been very few, if any, successful deliveries on our street.

  27. carlie says

    Boxes are easy – slap on a $10 deposit fee, set up return centers for people to bring them to at their convenience, they turn it in and get a receipt for that amount off of their next amazon order. It wouldn’t even have to be staffed; it could be like the bottle return vending machines where you shove the thing in and a barcoded receipt spits back out.

    sqlrob – it’s a lot easier (in the “lazy” sense) to shoot something down that’s flying by overhead with an airsoft or pellet gun (which aren’t generally regulated in-town) than it is to see a truck going by, hop into your own car and follow it, then wait for the delivery person to leave, then check to make sure the owners aren’t home, then check to make sure the neighbors aren’t watching, then go up and grab it and hope there aren’t any security cameras.

  28. Johnny Vector says

    Not sure how these things would deliver a coconut. I suppose it could grip it by the husk…

  29. sonofrojblake says

    Ah, the predictable sound of knees jerking.

    “I’d like to see it deliver my heavy packages.” You are an outlier (and a fucking idiot). 86% of Amazon deliveries weigh less than 2.3kg (source: Jeff Bezos on CBS 60 minutes, via BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-25180906). Nobody said they would do ALL their deliveries this way.

    “I/my cousin Billy Bob/surely some contemptible redneck will shoot them down”. Yeah, good luck with that. Say it slowly – THESE ARE NOT BIRDS. And they are not toys. They will leave the warehouse vertically, fly in a straight line a thousand feet up or more to their destination at probably fifty or sixty miles per hour, arrive vertically over their target and drop like a rock, deposit their package and immediately leave, vertically, again at very high speed. It’s conceivable that they’d not even land – if I were designing them I’d make the package robust enough to stand a four metre vertical drop, or fit it with a parachute, and the drone would never even come close to the ground. Yes, you could bring one down with a shotgun, but see below re: stealing one.

    “Birds will be a problem”. Birds, especially crows, are not stupid. They avoid aircraft, even model aircraft, even SILENT model aircraft. The exception is nesting birds of prey, which will attack and damage paragliders (personal experience talking)… But generally, birds mob other birds. Large, loud things with silhouettes they don’t recognise, they keep the hell away from.

    “Someone will steal them”- again, good luck with that, given that they don’t even need to land, necessarily. And given that they will by definition have 360 degree all round video (for collision avoidance) and will be streaming a feed back to base, anyone approaching them (assuming you can) better smile for camera, and the prosecutor. And obviously the things will be being tracked…

    “Dangerous” – Amazon are talking OCTOcopters. That’s at least four redundant propellers, so these things are going to be in the sky, and as the aviation maxim has it, nobody has ever collided with the sky. Accidents with these things are inevitable, but they will be considerably less dangerous (and hence easier and cheaper to insure) than the equivalent road transport. No child is ever going to unthinking walk out into the path of a drone…

    “Fake.” Not paying attention to the current level of technology in this area. I’ve a vested interest in these things NOT being allowed into the air – I have no wish to meet one next time I’m flying cross country in an aircraft with no moving parts, no rigid structure, no power source and no instruments. But I know enough to be confident in predicting that, in civilised countries at least, the air will be thick with these things before the decade is out.

    “Not cost effective”. Let’s see – we can charge a hefty premium for delivery the same HOUR, and the vehicle we deliver with costs less than $1,000 to buy, doesn’t need a driver, the “fuel” is so cheap it might as well be free and we can store two hundred of them in the space where we used to park the van…

    “The only immediate and foreseeable use of such drones would be …” If you can only think of one immediate and foreseeable use of such drones, you fail at imagination forever. Emergency service reconnaisance. Game reserve management. Sheep farm monitoring. Aerial photography. Pipeline surveying. Meteorology. Crowd control. Traffic flow reporting. News reporting. Criminal pursuits. The list of legitimate and massively beneficial uses for these things goes on and on and on.

  30. sonofrojblake says

    Note, by “criminal pursuits”, I mean for the police to use to pursue criminals. No need for a dangerous car chase, Officer X simply hits a button on the dashboard of his cruiser and the drone deploys from the trunk. It presents him with a number of possible moving targets on a touchscreen on his dashboard, he nominates one, and the drone locks on and pursues. Good luck outrunning something that can do 100 MPH plus in a straight line regardless of terrain, traffic, weather, etc., and which can probably return fire if you fire on it… Officer X can follow at a more leisurely pace, knowing the thermal image camera will keep the perp in view and guide him or his buddies straight to them, wherever they try to get to. Again, there’ll be ways to evade, but for most pursuits they’ll be much, much better and safer than what happens now.

    Law enforcement drones are *ALREADY HERE* in the UK. Just for surveillance at the moment, but again, I predict they’ll soon be ubiquitous. They’re cheap, easy to use, and their competition is the police helicopter, with its expensive pilot, expensive fuel, expensive maintenance, etc. etc. etc.

  31. Holms says

    Ah, the predictable sound of knees jerking.

    “I’d like to see it deliver my heavy packages.” You are an outlier (and a fucking idiot).

    Oh look: an arsehole.

  32. Turtles says

    @ #45

    “Birds will be a problem” – there are a fair number of videos out there of birds attacking radio controlled aircraft. With these octocopters it is just as likely the bird will get killed – not a great advert for Amazon.

    “Someone will steal them” – yes they will, people will just study their behaviour for a while and people *will* catch them/hack into them in flight/use nets/etc. Streaming video back to base is out of the question, there isn’t enough bandwidth for all the drones to be doing it all of the time and besides, the transmitter will drain valuable battery capacity. Machine vision is currently rubbish for tasks like collision avoidance – they will use ultrasonics/radar/ladar for that. As soon as it hits the ground you cut the power cables so it can’t be tracked, stick it in a bag and run… (I’ve not thought about stealing one too much – honest! :) )

    “Dangerous” – “That’s at least four redundant propellers” not really, you cant lose all four on one side of the aircraft for example. And having worked with these things they generally cant stand the loss of too much motor power before crashing – to make each motor more powerful means more weight, bigger motors, bigger batteries, more cost. “No child is ever going to unthinking walk out into the path of a drone…” You’d think running into a tree is a silly thing to do but I’ve seen children do that. And believe me, you dont want a cut from the rotor blades on one of these things. There is also the problem of several kilos of plastic, metal and books malfunctioning and falling out of the sky….probably enough to kill.

  33. sonofrojblake says

    You’d think running into a tree is a silly thing to do but I’ve seen children do that.

    Rather the point was that no child, no matter how benightedly stupid, is physically capable of walking out into the path of something that’s a thousand feet up in the air. This is where they offer a huge safety benefit over the land transport currently used for delivery. And I did acknowledge that there would be residual safety issues, and yes, I agree I don’t want a cut from a rotor blade. But… if it’s a choice between taking a cut from a rotor blade or being hit by a truck, which would you choose? Bearing in mind that the truck doesn’t have to suffer a catastrophic failure in order to be in a position to hit you?

    Your other objections mostly boil down to “the tech isn’t that good”, to which the obvious modifier must be added, YET. Machine vision is demonstrably NOT rubbish for collision avoidance even now – see the Google self-driving car, already being let loose on road with pedestrians. Then consider that for collision avoidance in the air you have
    (a) an environment much, much simpler and more empty than the average street and
    (b) three dimensions in which to travel to avoid collisions, including one in which instant, high acceleration travel is reliably available at all times, and free (i.e. down…)

    Of course, despite the difficulty, some will get stolen, but some of EVERYTHING gets stolen. “Someone will steal it” is an argument against having any kind of postal service at all.

    There will be an acceptable level of losses. There will be an acceptable level of accidents. Just like there are with cars, trucks, trains and manned aircraft. But the benefits to the consumer and to business will be huge, so it will happen. The only barriers are technology and regulation. The technology barriers are small and flimsy, and Amazon already treats business taxes as optional so any aviation regulations aren’t likely to last long when they’re in the way.

  34. carlie says

    You’d think running into a tree is a silly thing to do but I’ve seen children do that.

    *raises hand*

  35. Turtles says

    @ #49

    “that no child, no matter how benightedly stupid, is physically capable of walking out into the path of something that’s a thousand feet up in the air”

    Imagine the fun of standing under a descending copter and seeing how long you can stop it from dropping its payload by zigging and zagging from side to side as it tries to avoid you. Delivery trucks are no fun for that, the driver tells you to move. My point is – people will hurt themselves doing daft things around these. That’s not an argument to not use them, but autonomous robots don’t currently wander round in our environments and it just isn’t comparable to other means of delivery technology.

    “Machine vision is demonstrably NOT rubbish for collision avoidance even now – see the Google self-driving car, already being let loose on road with pedestrians.”

    What, the one that uses lidar for navigation? ( I did say “ladar” earlier, I meant lidar ). My point there was that lidar is good for navigation so you would use that, but it is not good for identifying someone trying to steal the copter. And I haven’t even started on GPS jammers yet…

    “some will get stolen, but some of EVERYTHING gets stolen”

    Yes, but it is usually the payload which gets stolen, not the delivery vehicle.

    Other things to consider…..

    Battery life – currently these things fly for about 15 minutes – you can put more batteries in but that lowers the range or payload. You will have to change the batteries for every flight.

    Proof of delivery – do you really want stuff just dropped onto your lawn and left there? At least a van driver knocks on the door or hides it behind a tree. Perhaps it could land on your roof for a while and then swoop down and deliver when you come home.

    My dog – he’s not even happy about the vacuum cleaner…these things will drive him nuts.

  36. D says

    If delivery using these is to be used for expediency, then I’d think amazon would just make sure that someone is waiting for the package when the drones arrive. So any theft or interference at the sight of delivery would be on the head of whoever made the order.

  37. says

    You know what’s even easier to steal? Checks, credit cards, and money orders just sitting in unlocked boxes with little flags announcing their availability.

    Sadly it seems that even a spin off blog of a science community is full of ludites and the criminally larcenous.

  38. Trebuchet says

    Next up ballistic delivery systems express. We guarantee to deliver your order to any place on earth within 30 minutes. Crater no extra charge.

    Perhaps I can assist with the trebuchet development for shorter ranges.

    Who need drones anyway? Amazon delivered me two books last evening over a wire, with the last ten feet or so via radio waves. And within one minute of ordering, at that.

  39. ChasCPeterson says

    We can haz edit function, pleeze?

    probably not, but you can haz Preview.

    a spin off blog of a science community

    what does that even mean?

    ludites

    luddites.

  40. says

    A recent exposé about warehouse work, published in Mother Jones, revealed the astonishing percentage of warehouse “picker” time spent selecting dildos for shipment. When Amazon gets drone delivery underway, there will be a lot of flying cocks.

    The story focuses on a company that subcontracts shipping for several suppliers, and the story only mentions Amazon a couple of times, but Amazon’s size and mistreatment of workers are mentioned. Amalgamated is used as an example of working in gigantic warehouses as a picker:

    … Amalgamated has estimated that we pickers speed-walk an average of 12 miles a day on cold concrete, and the twinge in my legs blurs into the heavy soreness in my feet that complements the pinch in my hips when I crouch to the floor [note that the author is 29 years old and in good physical condition] ..

    And dildos. Really, a staggering number of dildos. At breaks, some of my coworkers complain that they have to handle so many dildos. … it’s a welcome distraction, really, to imagine all these sex toys being taken out from under a tree and unwrapped. Merry Christmas. I got you this giant black cock you wanted.

    At lunch, the most common question, aside from “Which offensive dick-shaped product did you handle the most of today?” is “Why are you here?” like in prison. …

  41. stevem says

    re Turtles @52:

    Proof of delivery – do you really want stuff just dropped onto your lawn and left there? At least a van driver knocks on the door or hides it behind a tree. Perhaps it could land on your roof for a while and then swoop down and deliver when you come home.

    Why not just have the drone wait for the recipient to come sign-for-it? You know, the drone doesn’t unclip until signed for, and it can jump to prevent unauthorized removal. Use the new UPS signpads that are just a little touchscreen that you use your finger to sign. Maybe even go ‘whole-hog’ (with technology on its way; I’m looking at you iPhone5 “finger-lock”) and just acquire a thumb-print for a better I.D. of the recipient. No need for a constant streaming video, just transmit the last 5-minutes if “something” happens.

    Ho-hum; whatevah… Always fun and interesting to extrpolate advanced technology to more mundane utilization…. tra-la

  42. MarcusC says

    Of course the FAA won’t yet allow commercial use of drones in the US, and when they do there will be various extra steps to jump through, including trained ‘pilots’ and filing a basic flight plan for any trips out of line-of-sight.
    And, as has been noted, there are other countries where this has already been done (Zookal in Australia).

  43. ryancunningham says

    One obvious problem with these things is going to be controlling thousands of them as they leave and enter the Amazon shipping facilities. I have no idea how you write control software that would allow a swarm of bots that big to safely and reliably occupy the same airspace. This makes air traffic control at O’Hare look like a piece of cake.

    Another obvious problem is power consumption. There’s a reason we still use trains and boats for shipping things. Bulk transport is very efficient. With the right routes in a densely populated area, the UPS/Fedex truck gets the same benefit. The drones would not.

    Maybe the drones will be limited to shipping light packages to rural areas. That would mitigate both of the main technical hurdles I just listed. The rest of the challenges commenters have listed seem to be more cultural than technical, and I’d imagine we’d adapt.

  44. Bicarbonate says

    ryancunningham @ 64

    One obvious problem with these things is going to be controlling thousands of them as they leave and enter the Amazon shipping facilities. I have no idea how you write control software that would allow a swarm of bots that big to safely and reliably occupy the same airspace. This makes air traffic control at O’Hare look like a piece of cake.

    Birds do it. They often swarm in big clouds in the Fall before migrating. Has always fascinated me. Looks like a tornado of bids and they don’t hit each other.

  45. says

    Perfect . . . our world is already more than cluttered with eyesore pollution like . . . billboards. telephone and electrical lines and poles, cell towers, fastfood signs, bla, bla, bla. Looking down, you can’t walk two steps in a city without seeing a cigarette butt. Hell, apart from contrails, looking up to the sky was our last refuge of a somewhat natural world. Do we really need these little obnoxious flying sh!ts covering the sky?

  46. says

    You know I gotta love that Amazon saw their profits and decided that they COULD hire more to expand coverage or they could reward their employees and reinvest in the economy by raising pay but instead decided to blow it on fucking robots

  47. mudpuddles says

    Here’s a knee-jerk reaction then:
    I reckon its just a great way of drumming up publicity and column inches for Amazon ahead of the Christmas rush (and hats off to them for that, as its clearly worked!)

    The logistics of managing a fleet of these things zipping around the air – from an air traffic control (or “drone traffic control”) viewpoint alone – are prohibitive (at present and for the forseeable future, at least). As regards to birds, as bicarbonate has pointed out many species can flock in the tens of thousands. So how would one of these drones deal with a murmuration of starlings, or large flocks of urban pigeons, in its path? Will the birds simply get out of the way? They don’t always do a great job when its a peregrine falcon in their midst. And bird flocks hit power lines, radio controlled toys, weather balloons and ascending small aircraft all the time. What about the simple issue of electrical storms and other inclement weather? Restricted fly zones around airfields, airports, military bases, hospitals, government buildings…? “Delivery in 30 minutes guaranteed. Unless there is intense rain, hail or snow, risk of lightning, winds above 60 mph, or if you live on a busy bird migration route, or near lots of types of buildings….”

    Then there’s the whole FAA / pilot training thing too. So I say its bogus, but great for PR, and fun for us nerds to quibble over.

  48. viggen111 says

    if they’re actually shown to represent an energy savings.

    This whole scheme looks really poorly thought out to me right now. The country is a bit infatuated with multicopters at the moment and mostly not understanding them. Here are a couple additional issues that will need consideration:

    1.) The lithium polymer batteries needed to fly these things are not terribly long lived yet. They can be recharged and very quickly, but the charge capacity deteriorates at a non-negligible rate in my experience. This isn’t running a flashlight, they’re driving at maybe 20 Amps of current for 20 minutes. Never mind pack-puffing and crash fires, the business will chew up LiPos at an exorbitant rate.

    2.) Whatever they look like in the youtube videos, these things aren’t antigravity: the motors run 30,000 rpm and higher on a prop that is maybe as big as 10 inches in diameter. Somebody is inevitably going to get their hand, their dog or maybe their child blended through one of these things. Flying them very close to people and near the ground, particularly autonomously where the pilot can’t see everything around the aircraft, is exceptionally irresponsible.

    3.) I think multicopters, while relatively simple to fly, are not terribly wind stable. Like with any very small aircraft, they will be pretty weather sensitive. If you’ve ever tried flying aircraft of this size, you realize pretty quickly that small variations in air conditions can have a dramatic impact on flying performance (and control) damn quickly.

    4.) While we are getting very good at using radio frequency bandwidth, I question whether our completely autonomous flying capabilities are good enough to safely handle trees, porches and other obstructive features around the delivery area that aren’t known in the address information when the communications link to the pilot inevitably drops out. The Google driver-less car has a $100,000 Lidar system on it, but can a 10 lb octocopter carry a piece of equipment of that quality and still have enough room for a 5 lb package? Worse, can you afford to regularly crash a $102,000 octocopter making a 5 lb delivery? Can you afford to crash a $2,000 octocopter on a $15 delivery? How many successful deliveries must the unit provide to absorb the inevitable crash through somebody’s car windshield?

    5.) Because of the multicopter FPV idiots who keep flying into airport restricted airspace, the FAA is very rapidly shoring up civilian UAV laws –and they are trying to err on the side of the draconian. Will 20 minute deliveries still be possible when you have to follow some imposed flight corridor with an aircraft that has a maximum speed of maybe 35-45 mph? It won’t be legally possible to fly these things to their destination “as the crow flies” for very long… and they aren’t that fast anyway. (Top speeds for rotory wing aircraft of this size are about 150 mph, but at a power economy of 3-4 minutes of flight time… and multicopters are not known for their speed.)

    6.) Are you ready for the idiot who flies a multicopter with a 5 lb bomb on it into a packed football stadium? It’s coming… and Amazon flooding the skies with these things is going to make it that much hard to find the one that has the bomb on it.

  49. lochaber says

    I’m all for air-piracy. :)

    Back to the slingshot bit, I wonder how well mini-bolas would work? just string together two split-shot sinkers with some cord… I don’t imagine it would be as accurate or have the same range as a basic lead sphere, but would probably be more prone to taking one of these down.

    Aside from that, I’m wondering about the logistics of this. I imagine in some scenarios shipping small/light items might be more efficient this way (especially if you can couple the battery charging to a solar or wind system or something similar). Although, I imagine this would have to be limited to rural and suburban areas, with single-family residences. I can’t really see how this would work for large apartment buildings.

    Probably more marketing then anything else, but sorta interesting to think about other possible uses of tech like this.

  50. randay says

    Sonofrojblake # 46. It can work the other way around. Criminals could use them for extortion and kidnapping. Give us a million dollars or we will send one into one of your offices. Leave the ransom at some place and have a drone pick it up. Of course the police will have an emitter on the package, but the drone could have a device to block all signals except its specific frequency.

    There are probably other uses I haven’t imagined since I am not even a technician, and now I am probably being checked out by the NSA just for mentioning these things.

  51. says

    I wonder what the liability picture of this thing will be. Even if it proves workable it may not be cost effective given how much Amazon might end up paying for insurance.

  52. numerobis says

    On the topic of drones flown by civilians, here’s some great video of the Bangkok protests, taken from a drone:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tInPb0sw3U
    Some noise-canceling would be nice so you could hear the events below, but other than that, it’s good enough for TV.

    These things aren’t that expensive anymore — a few hundred bucks — and that’s models that are built for the hobbyist market. Get a major funding push to make these more efficient to fly and build, and it’ll advance quickly.

    I too doubt that you save any energy over long distances, but I could definitely see an 18-wheeler coming up to the subdivision, parking, farming out the octocopters to deliver to everyone, then moving on to another subdivision down the road, recharging the copters on the road. I’m not seeing how to really work this in an urban environment, short of tapping on the window of your high-rise.

  53. stevem says

    re numerobis @77:

    Interesting scenarios; the “rolling” distribution center, to reach suburbs etc. As for recharging in urban areas: [patent pending] It would be pretty easy to set up ‘Wireless Recharging Stations’ on various rooftops distributed throughout the urban cityscape. Wireless recharging is just Rectifying an Incoming Radio Signal to re-zap the batteries.

    squeee, I think I’m having a ‘nerdgasm'; this concept is a thrilling challenge, to overcome all the frivolous [IMO] objections I see being raised all over.

  54. grumpypathdoc says

    Statement of the obvious, as previously stated in so many posts above: Steve Bezos is generating hype on Cyber Monday: Surprise!!

    He will surely garner at least a percentage more revenue because of this but what I’m thinking, and some of you may have also alluded to this possibility as well, certain knuckleheaded consumers will see this video and expect their order to be delivered via drone this season.

    By the way, though quite sophisticated drones are available to the hobbyist already, most of these have an “in air” time of no more than 15-20 minutes. That Amazon shipping center had better be pretty damn close to me to recieve a package via this method, as not many drones travel at supersonic speeds as yet.

  55. Feats of Cats says

    I wonder what the delivery charge would be for this? I find even two-day shipping is prohibitively expensive for me.

  56. madscientist says

    I’ll be waiting for the injuries and lawsuits. Having hordes of gizmos with fast spinning blades on them passing overhead in a city just isn’t a good idea. There have already been quite a few quad copter operators making a nuisance of themselves by operating the things in areas where it just isn’t sensible to operate such devices. Gizmos with a decent range and payload capacity will be far more dangerous.

  57. cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming) says

    @carlie?

    You’d think running into a tree is a silly thing to do but I’ve seen children do that.

    *raises hand*

    See this tree? (The malevolent shady one at the back, centre field.)

    The bastard thing jumped right out at me. I never saw it coming.

    (If we’d had a referee it’d have been a red card, but that’s kids’ soccer for you.)

  58. says

    “They fly at 400 feet between 45-65 kilometers an hour and they are very small. At that height, you can barely see them. You cannot hear them. It’s like a tiny dot moving in the sky. That’s the practical aspect of the question. It’s not going to be a bunch of kids doing it for fun,” Raptopoulous said, raining on every kid’s parade.

    “The second point is that it’s illegal,” he said. “The reason we’re not shooting other moving things with guns is because it’s not something that’s legal.

    Oh that’s just adorable!

    Of course like any aircraft it will fall into regular flight paterns which can be predicted and thus observed for those wanting to take them down.

  59. sonofrojblake says

    @64 ryancunningham:

    One obvious problem with these things is going to be controlling thousands of them as they leave and enter the Amazon shipping facilities. I have no idea how you write control software that would allow a swarm of bots that big to safely and reliably occupy the same airspace. This makes air traffic control at O’Hare look like a piece of cake.

    Same goes for mudpuddles @70.

    The old “argument from incredulity”. Seriously? You *explicitly state* here that the basis of this argument is that you literally have no idea how to do this, as though that means it can’t be done. Or, indeed, hasn’t already been done years ago, in principle: http://youtu.be/YQIMGV5vtd4

    The reason traffic control at O’Hare is hard is because the pilots are dumb humans who have to be talked to with words. Controlling these things in large groups is not only NOT cost prohibitive, it’s trivially easy compared to managing human drivers of trucks on roads and the basic software problems have already been solved.

    @71 viggen111: re: stability in wind. Sure – a human pilot has a hard time controlling a light R/C model in a gusty wind. But an onboard flight controller can react faster than any human to sensory inputs. As long as the wind speed doesn’t exceed the vehicles maximum airspeed, a computer could keep a drone in a hover over any arbitrary point relatively easily.

    Yes, the business will chew up LiPos at a rate of knots, until a better battery comes along. Meantimes, the customers rich enough to want their stuff NOW – i.e. people richer than Feats of Cats @81, and there are a LOT of those people – they will pay for those LiPos.

    Delivery in the urban environment is no problem at all. Right now, mail and small packages get pushed through a small slot in your door that faces out onto the street. Am I really the only one posting here with the imagination to picture a mail-delivery opening that faces UP? I.e. one into which a drone could air-drop your package, and have it be diverted safely to a space within your property? I leave it as an exercise for you to work out how to keep the rain out while letting legit packages in…

  60. madtom1999 says

    Apparently Apple have bought the patent from Hogwarts so its all been called off now.

  61. sonofrojblake says

    BTW, well done to PZ and many of those commenting for perpetuating the stereotype that the very first instinct of the American when presented with something novel is to shoot at it…

  62. unclefrogy says

    OK what merchandise would warrant such “instant ” shipping
    if the value is too high then it then invites theft
    if the value is too low the expense of delivery is too high
    if it is some moderately priced item who would need it badly enough that they would pay the extra cost for such “immediate delivery” ?
    so you can’t use them in crowded cities where there is no air space and few landing sites
    so you would need room to fly, places to land and the money to spend for the convenience
    Downton Abbey and places like expensive houses in the Hollywood Hills would be the first customers until the cost of delivery is down to under $2
    I would look for 3D printers to be ubiquitous before a bunch of minicopters are flying all over the place.
    Besides it is way more efficient to ship the bits for mundane things. the more expensive, rare or unique things will be securely hand delivered as will big bulky and heavy
    uncle frogy.

  63. mudpuddles says

    Hi sonofrojblake,

    The old “argument from incredulity”.

    Ah, but so much better than the argument from credulity which I’m sure Bezos was anticipating.

    The software used for choreographed formation flying in that cute youtube video is entirely different from the systems needed to deal with the purported fleets of hundreds of automated drones flying at random unpredictable launch times in random directions at high speed via controlled and uncontrolled airspace and with more than a few static obstacles to contend with. Not really the same thing as dancing robots being monitored and directed by a human indoors. But even if that aspect was already easy-peasy already-done sooper-simple, the weather, accuracy and safety issues are still huge problems that make this unworkable. You say “As long as the wind speed doesn’t exceed the vehicles maximum airspeed, a computer could keep a drone in a hover over any arbitrary point relatively easily” – assuming that the FAA / FCC or their counterparts in other countries ever give permission for flying these drones in built up areas (and in the US flying them close to residential property would probably be illegal under federal law on private property rights), I’m guessing that speeds at low altitudes (under 40m) will have to be very low for safety reasons alone, under 15 mph and far less when close to ground for delivery, so the chance of such light units encountering tricky wind speeds is pretty high on most days of the year. And what’s the use in hovering? Are they going to just hover around till the wind dies down, or drop the package onto the ground? Return to depot if its too breezy?

    Then there are the powerlines, phone lines, aerials, construction scaffolding and trees that change too frequently to be captured by maps, plus the potentially chaotic mix of road traffic, other commercial and private drones, kids with kites, mischievous teens, wildlife, pets (many dogs would go nuts after one of these things) and pedestrians, all of which no GPS or camera system can contend with. As for accuracy, my rc twin-prop helicopter, which I use for aerial photography and mapping (and for which I occasionally need approval from local aviation authorities) and which has been mobbed by crows and herons, has an accuracy of 20 meters. Assuming they are given precise GPS co-ordinates for a property, and recognising that direct line of site with the required number of satellites for tighter resolution in a built-up area is unlikely, then one of those drones carrying a load even in calm weather would probably have an accuracy of between 5 and 8 meters, which isn’t so good if you’re expecting safe and accurate delivery in a high density urban area, or to one of your up-facing parcel boxes. These drones would also likely fall under 47 CFR Part 15, meaning interference (which would be high at low altitudes in many areas) might further impact accuracy. Not forgetting also that a bump on the head from even lighter, slower aircraft can kill (several deaths from small rc aircraft, mostly in collisions with children, have been documented in the US and Europe), which is just one of several safety concerns.

    Its perhaps worth noting that two earlier efforts to deliver food stuffs using drones in China have failed, one due to inability to meet existing aviation regulations and the other due to poor accuracy and collisions with road traffic and power lines during tests. I’d bet that yes, someday all these issues can be solved, but not in the next 5 years. Its far more likely that Bezos and his team are enjoying a fun avenue of R&D, saw a great PR opportunity to get massive online interest around Cyber Monday, and grabbed it. Also more likely that they’ll be selling octocopters by 2018, rather than using them for deliveries. But this is fun ;)

    @ numerobis,
    Hi there, your rolling distribution centres sounds like a cool idea, but I’d guess that they’d either have to be pretty huge or numerous in order to hold enough products to ensure an ordered item was on hand, or they would have to roll out of an existing distribution building, which is only cost effective when a certain carrying capacity is reached, which affects the 30 minute deadline.

  64. eoleen says

    Why is everybody complaining? Is there a closed season on these strange, metallic birds, or something?

    I hunt birds: pheasants, grouse, ducks, etc. with a 12-gauge pump gun. Off season I have to content myself with hunting deer (in season, and with deer slug, since I’m in Massachusetts). When there is no game available (which means LEGAL), I “hunt” clay pigeons.

    Now here is Amazon about to bring out a WHOLE NEW CLASS of targets!!!!! Talk about INNOVATION!!!!! I can just picture myself ordering a case of 12-gauge #7 shotgun shells, and TAKING OUT THE DELIVERY VEHICLE when it arrives!!!!!

    Does anyone have a recipe for cooking one of those things? I’ve got several for clay pigeons, but any way you cook them they don’t taste so good…

  65. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Me + Amazon is already dangerous, if you give me the option of having my items flown to my house in 30 minutes-ish, I’ll be broke and drowning in Dr. Who DVDs within a week.

  66. Holms says

    The old “argument from incredulity”. Seriously? You *explicitly state* here that the basis of this argument is that you literally have no idea how to do this, as though that means it can’t be done.

    While you do the opposite – the handwave. “The future will take care of that” repeated as necessary. Next step: space elevator!

    BTW, well done to PZ and many of those commenting for perpetuating the stereotype that the very first instinct of the American when presented with something novel is to shoot at it…

    Perpetuating a sterotype, or expressing their own first impressions which happen to resemble that stereotype?

  67. sonofrojblake says

    All of these objections are academic. This is going to happen. Not this year, not next year (probably). But suggesting that it *can’t* happen just makes you look like the guys who said no train could go over 20mph or the passengers would suffocate.

    Those of you objecting loudly and in detail about why it can’t possibly ever happen are merely the evidence why, when it does happen, it won’t be in the USA. This kind of infrastructure will simply be implemented, developed and perfected elsewhere, and the USA will trail in the wake, with all the economic consequences that follow from that.

    Britain was a world superpower in 1900, and before the century was out we were an irrelevance, a fact the Chinese have just reminded us of. The USA is a world superpower now… but the near-universal kneejerk Luddite reaction to this news story, even from otherwise supposedly intelligent people, may one day be seen as an indicator of why, before 2100, the USA will be as relevant on the world stage as the UK is now…

  68. sonofrojblake says

    BTW, space elevator is a completely different scale of problem. Conservatively at leasdt 50% of the problem implementing some form of drone delivery service is not hardware or software related, it’s regulatory. Which means that it varies by country. If someone tells me “this will never happen IN THE USA because the FAA will never allow it”, I’ll accept that, because I have no idea if Amazon have the economic clout to lean on the FAA to make it possible. (Amazon regard tax as optional, but I’ve no idea whether they can get FAA rules changed. I suspect they might be able to, if they really want to.)

    But if the problems are mostly regulatory, that means that for some jurisdictions, those problems literally don’t exist, and the ONLY barrier is technological. And I only have to look at my phone, I only have to TALK to my phone and have it understand what I said, even though I spoke with an accent, without pausing and with a mouthful of yoghurt, to know that if a company with Amazon’s resources wants something, technological barriers might as well be made of wet tissue paper.

    If 50% of the barrier to building a space elevator was regulations, China would already have one.

  69. alt3 says

    I’ve considered in the past stepping in front of an autonomous car just to force the courts to sort out the ins and outs of autonomous machine liability, but this could work too. The only issue would be finding a way to make it either kill or seriously injure me.

    I (or my family) would make a great plaintiff for a test case too. As a straight white cis man from an upper middle class background the deck is already stacked in my favour. That way the precedent being setwould come rolled up with the power of my pprivilege.

  70. says

    If you know Bezos the anti-union activist, the anti-sales tax warrior, the holiday temp worker exploiter, you know this is not about saving fuel or saving on equipment costs.

    It’s, yes, about speed.
    But it’s mainly about eliminating labor costs.
    Amazon has been trying to avoid using employee-owned and/or union-employed delivery workers (UPS, USPS), has shifted to services like FedEx Express, whose employees are NOT FedEx employees but are usually temp workers from overworked small delivery businesses, some with only a handful of employees that are complaining that they are not paid enough to pay their workers, and are not given enough time to deliver.

    One self-owned operator personally delivered an item to me at close to 12 AM, working to try to keep caught up.

    This is about eliminating jobs.

  71. Holms says

    All of these objections are academic. This is going to happen. Not this year, not next year (probably). But suggesting that it *can’t* happen just makes you look like the guys who said no train could go over 20mph or the passengers would suffocate.

    People have not been saying this will never be possible, they have been saying this is not yet possible. And my first criticism of your needlessly antagonistic response still stands: arsehole.

  72. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    I’m kind of with sonofrojblake here. I think it is going to happen, and I think a lot of the objections are hyperbolic at best. That’s not to say that they are invalid.

    I find it all very exciting. I imagine it will be quite expensive (Amazon charge, what, £4 for next day delivery? So I imagine this service will cost about a tenner), but say for example you’ve forgotten your anniversary and need a present now… this could come in very handy, when it happens.