On the Amazon Octocopter

Imagine ordering a television or your groceries online and having them delivered to you by an unmanned aircraft. Even Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos admitted it sounds “like science fiction” when he announced that the company is experimenting with a project to do just that.

The delivery drones, which will be offered to customers in four or five years’ time, could transform Amazon’s already slick delivery network.

The company hopes to deploy an armada of flying “octocopters” carrying products weighing under five pounds to users – around 86pc of items they deliver – within 30 minutes of an order being placed.

A video posted on its website showed a prototype drone with eight small helicopter rotors and four tall legs. Powered by an electric motor, they will operate autonomously and use GPS to locate homes of customers within a 10-mile radius of Amazon distribution centres.

It is one of a handful of off-the-wall projects known, in Silicon Valley parlance, as “moonshot ideas”: examples of technological developments so ambitious that, before they appear, most people rule them out as impossible.

I suppose it could be a moonshot idea.

Personally though I took it to be a very good bit of PR in the American prime shopping season.

35 comments on “On the Amazon Octocopter

  1. There is no way any government would let this idea fly (sorry). If you have to strip to your under crackers just to board a plane, the chances of unmanned drones, zipping round the highways and byways, delivering brown paper packages to random peeps is simply never going to happen. However, that doesn’t mean that Amazon isn’t trying to develop something like this for internal use. Say, in their multi-football pitch sized warehouses perhaps. Just think, all those poor, hard done by workers would no longer have to walk 15 miles a shift just to earn a Government mandated suitable wage, in places where finding a job is almost as easy as picking a winning lottery ticket. They could simply go back to sitting on the sofa/dole moaning about how Amazon don’t pay enough tax to fund their benefits, whilst ordering 90% of their Christmas presents from the self same Amazon – ‘Well it’s cheaper, innit’. Amazon gets a reliable work force that doesn’t bitch and whine to the Guardian every minute of the day and the Guardianistas would have a whole new load of shit they don’t approve of/understand to waffle about. It’s a win win all round.

  2. This isn’t so daft an idea as it sounds.
    If you think of regular Amazon users having a laser ‘target’ on the landing area for a drone to home on for final approach, there’s no reason it wouldn’t be doable.
    But Sarah does have a very good point about drone proliferation putting the wind up the authorities. There’s the airspace management problem for a start.

  3. Innovative idea, but probably not terribly practical in areas of “the sticks” like wot I live in… My postcode puts “Google Earth” and most satnavs in the middle of a field about 400 yards away, then add in the local farmers’ tendency to take pot-shots at anything bigger than a blackbird…

  4. At roof level, most streets are a web of telephone and power cables, not to mention washing lines lower down. Can these things really navigate past those?

    I call ‘flying car’!

  5. bis,

    It’s just PR. The Parrot AR Drone has a range of about 35 minutes flying at 11mph. At best, they can do a few miles.

    There’s probably some niche uses – instead of posties having to get on boats to go to small Scottish isles, set the drone off and let it deliver the post.

  6. With the Google driverless car system already existing & roads in most cities there seems little reason to fly parcels around when they could be driven to your door.

    Possibly Amazon wanting to show they can match Google. They can’t.

  7. Also puts paid to any idea that the future of low-level employment was to be in delivery driving. With driverless craft and drones that’s done too.

  8. bis,

    Sure, I’m not saying it’s not possible. But in the sort of timeframe Bezos is talking about, it’ll bullshit. Apart from problems like people stealing drones, avoiding collisions, there’s a problem about energy storage. In a five year period, we won’t have the energy storage required at that point. The research into say, carbon nanotubes (CNT) that can deliver a 10x density are still at the research stage, which means that even in 5 years time, they won’t be in manufacturing.

    This story works precisely because news organisations are stuffed full of arts graduates who haven’t got a clue and would rather print an untrue but interesting story than a true but dull story.

  9. The first time an octocopter cuts somebody, it will be over. Really, the first time somebody CLAIMS they were cut by an octocopter, it will be over.

    Besides, for an octocopter to deliver me a boxed set of Atkinson’s Trilogy in half-an-hour, it has to be within a few miles of me in the first place. That would require a massive proliferation of warehouses containing just about everything. Not practical.

  10. I watched ’60 Minutes’ that night and have to say I haven’t laughed that hard in ages. Bezos is a genius. He invests a couple of hundred thousand on putting together a P.T. Barnum stunt and then suckers ’60 Minutes’ into broadcasting it the day before Cyber Monday. I just don’t know how he was able to keep a straight face through it all. Add to the fact that you have all sorts of media dimwits now speculating about its feasibility (Matt Yglesias, ever the dimwit, has a classic take on it) and what you have Amazon getting millions of dollars of advertising for the cost of a drone and a few props. Pure. Fucking. Genius.

  11. @Mr Ecks

    Driverless cars will do away with more than just a few delivery drivers, there are 300,000 taxi drivers in the country today, that’s 100,000 more than there were coal miners in 1980. In 20-30 years those jobs will have gone. Driverless cars will do to taxiing what containers did to dockers, the digital camera did to film manufacturers and Thatcher did to miners.

    As for small parcel deliveries, it’ll just be an Amazon locker with wheels and an electric motor.

  12. …cont

    I wonder if we will see taxi drivers/ Labour calling for the protection of their occupation?

    Think of the vandalism that will be conducted against driverless cars by disgruntled cabbies! May be worth investing in Dunlop right now.

    300,000 people freed from their current dead end jobs to go out in to the world and finally put all those good ideas they tell you about in to practice. They also seem to know how to fix the world so a few will end up as MPs.

  13. “multi-football pitch sized warehouses

    What is that in terms of the size of Wales?”

    Wales is the next size up from county and football pitch is smaller than a county but bigger than an olympic swimming pool.

    So, it is exactly two sizes down from “the size of Wales”.

    Perhaps there ought to be one between County and Football pitch, but there isn’t – can’t make an is from an ought.

  14. johnny bonk – a Hyde Park ranks higher than several football pitches but below fractions of counties (including the spookily similar Rutland and Isle of Wight). Two Hyde Parks are approximately three Monacos. They are rarely spotted but certainly venerable as a google for “twice the size of Hyde Park” will reveal.

    Yanks seem to have Rhode Islands to fill our gap between counties and Waleses.

  15. Whatever happened to the plucky little Belgium ? That was once the unit of medium size, now displaced by the Wales. I blame UKIP.

  16. Mr BurningEars, I’ll concede I may have missed a Hyde Park there, but an Isle of Wight is too specialist – perhaps physicists use it but not much the general public.

    I correct myself: “a football pitch is i3 sizes down from a Wales, there being a County and a Hyde Park between them”

  17. Whether or not the drones story is real of a PR stunt is irrelevant. Bezo’s goal is to have same day delivery which is why he is perfectly happy to pay sales tax in many US states on the condition he can construct a distribution centre as part of the deal with the government.

    Now imagine if I can go on Amazon purchase an item and in a couple of hours it arrives at my door. You think the retail industry is in trouble now, basically that is the death knell for most high street shops.

    pretty much the only things that will survive are shops that are providing some sort of service such as cafes, supermarkets and probably the big out of town malls which as a destination for people to “Go Shopping”.

    Personally I cannot wait until there is same day delivery as I will never go into a department store or shop again. Why would you if I can get it cheaper, don’t have to go out of my living room and get the item in a couple of hours.

    All good stuff in my view but the retail lobby will really go bananas when they realise what this means for their industry.

  18. In October it was announced that “Britain’s Mess of Road Potholes Could Cover the Isle of Wight”, and just this November we had “Scientists on alert after giant iceberg nearly TWICE the size of the Isle of Wight breaks from glacier”. So the Wight is definitely in circulation.

    Americans are spoilt for choice with so many islands, lakes and states to choose from. But when they are told that there are forests at severe risk of fire covering “an area the size of Idaho” how many of them have the faintest idea how big that is? By dint of classical British ignorance I couldn’t place that either in numerical or intuitive terms, but I’m not sure US High School geography lessons would have remedied either of those situations unless I was one of the relatively few Americans to have lived or travelled around Idaho.

  19. In Australia when we use the phrase “the size of France” to describe a relatively small area of land. As far as the Isle of Wight is concerned it is too small an area to bother with for Australian geographical purposes. I mean there are electorates in WA that are the size of Western Europe.

  20. By the time the Bezocopter ever flies, we’ll be downloading crap blueprints for our home 3D printer instead of ordering the crap from Amazon.

  21. So… we can download the blueprints for an octocopter and then send it to Amazon to pick up our goods. Sounds good.

  22. Offshore Observer – in a country where everything is so damned big, what do they use for comparative purposes when a smallish area (say, iceberg sized) is required?

  23. “Why would you if I can get it cheaper, don’t have to go out of my living room and get the item in a couple of hours.”

    Returns will be a bitch.

  24. Perhaps Amazon’s contract with UPS is coming up soon, and this is Amazon’s first salvo in negotiations.

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