What’s droning overhead, mamma? It’s Amazon CEO’s fertile imagination

Bezos’ out-of-the-box idea garners free publicity, triggers national debate of sorts

Put on your tinfoil hats everybody lest an Amazon drone lands on your head! Or didn’t you get the memo — Jeff Bezos plans to deliver Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) parcels to people’s doorsteps within 30 minutes of placing order using autonomous drones? Its paranoia time in America again. Maybe it’s the winter that brings out the crazy in our business leaders.

So if you thought Jeff Bezos’ plan is a way, way outside the box idea that skirts the line between fiction and reality. Here comes his self-admission of sorts. “I know this is like science fiction, It’s not,” he told a TV show host as if reassuring himself.

The Amazon founder is optimistic that the fleet of miniature drones clutching plastic containers will be ready to fly to pre-programmed addresses within a radius of 10 miles and whiz around the country providing half-hour delivery of packages of up to 5 pounds — 86 percent of Amazon’s stock — just as soon as the F.A.A. approves.

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“Look, this thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighbourhood,” he said, admitting that the technology that would enable eight-rotar ‘octocopters’ safely deliver goods is still in the early stages and the United States is unlikely to establish rules for civilian unmanned aircraft systems until 2015 at the earliest.

Though Bezos claims the drone delivery will start in four-five years, the Amazon CEO’s bold vision won’t turn into a reality be before 2020 – if at all it does.

REGULATORY HURDLE

The Federal Aviation Administration first needs to figure out how to allow commercial drones into an already crowded U.S. airspace. Though the FAA plans to integrate commercial drones into American airspace as early as September 30, 2015, it is yet to develop drone regulations.

Over the next several years, the FAA will establish regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote piloted drones to meet increased demand. Autonomous drone operation (sought by Amazon) is not currently allowed in the United States. So far, only a single commercial UAS operator has been approved that too in the Arctic, the FAA said in a statement on Monday.

PUBLICITY STUNT?

Even after the FAA cleared air on regulations, Amazon remains optimistic, giving fodder to critics who have dubbed their hyperbole announcement a cheap PR stunt.

So if you thought the announcement of Amazon’s drone delivery plan was ill-timed, think again.

A day before the Cyber Monday, Bezos steps into the studio of CBS TV and unveils his ambitious (read unrealistic) plan and gets the whole world talking about his brand. Irrespective of the fact that Amazon Prime Air is merely hot air, his move to use drones for delivery triggered the blaze of publicity it wanted on Cyber Monday – free advertising the night before the biggest e-commerce shopping day of the year.

Taking Bezos’ claims on face value, many media outlets euphorically reported Amazon’s ambitious plan without realising that announcing drone delivery plans have become a fairly common PR stunt now. In the past one year, several such announcements, Including textbook-delivering drones by Australia’s Zokal and pizza-delivering drones by Domino’s, were made, but none of them have actually taken off the ground due to regulatory hurdles.

SAFETY AND PRIVACY CONCERN

Like Zokal and Domino’s, Amazon is also up against a volley of real-world challenges.

Moments after Amazon announced their plan to use unmanned drones to deliver some packages to customers within five years, Samy Kamkar, a Los Angeles-based security researcher, wrote in his blog: “How fun would it be to take over drones, carrying Amazon packages…or take over any other drones, and make them my little zombie drones (SkyJack). Awesome!”

He claims to have created a flying contraption that can hijack control of other flying drones made by one of the industry’s leading manufacturers, Parrot.

Kamkar, who was shot to fame for developing malware that exposed a flaw in the MySpace social network, stated: “SkyJack is a drone engineered to autonomously seek out, hack, and wirelessly take over other drones within Wi-Fi distance, creating an army of zombie drones under your control.”

“I think it’s critical that drones have some additional protection,” said he said in an interview with BBC.

Echoing Kamkar’s sentiments, the UK-based Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) immediately warned that the technology needs refinement.

IET’s Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, who is pushing for wider use of unmanned aircraft worldwide, said that there are many challenges to overcome. Top of the list is the need to mature the technologies and demonstrate to the regulators that unmanned aircraft can operate safely in our airspace.

Mark Udall, a Democrat Colorado senator who is pushing legislation that would outlaw domestic surveillance by UAS, raised concerns about privacy.

“Coloradans will accept this technology only if they are certain their privacy is protected and that Americans won’t be victims of surveillance or privacy abuse by private unmanned aerial system operators,” he said in a statement.

If thousands of drones are to fly around delivering packages across cities, the authorities need to make a dedicated route for them. Otherwise some will crash every day, and captain Bezo and his army will have to frantically run around to pick up the fallen drones and deliver the packages. In order to get FAA approval, drones makers must satisfy the authorities that they would be able to avoid collision with airplanes, helicopters, and one another.

SHINY DISTRACTION

True that the drone technology has advanced rapidly over the years, but the only thing the drone delivery stunt will be delivering for Amazon in the near future is good publicity — a shiny distraction from serious inquiry into the company’s ambitions and practices. The retailer is facing unprecedented scrutiny of journalists exposing working conditions and calls for a boycott by lawmakers not impressed by its imaginative tax arrangements.

Call it a PR stunt or Bezo’s fertile imagination, but Amazon CEO’s futuristic (read fictional) plan has certainly triggered a national debate of sorts on the use of commercial drones with the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates supporting the move and lawmakers opposing it.

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