Look, up in the sky! Amazon’s drones are delivering cans of soup!

Look, up in the sky!  Amazon's drones are delivering cans of soup!

Exactly a decade ago, Amazon introduced a program that aimed to revolutionize shopping and shipping. Drones launched from a central hub will provide everything anyone needs while flying in the sky. They will be fast, innovative, ubiquitous – all Amazon hallmarks.

Exciting announcement made by Jeff Bezos on “60 Minutes” As part of a Cyber ​​Monday promotional package, it received global attention. “I know it sounds like science fiction. It’s not,” Mr. Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, said at the time. Drones “will be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place,” possibly in 2015, the company said,

After eight additional years, drone delivery is a reality on the outskirts of College Station, Texas, northwest of Houston. This is a major accomplishment for a program that has waxed and waned over the years and lost many of its early leaders to new and more pressing projects.

Yet the enterprise as it currently exists is so weak that Amazon can only keep drones in the air by delivering goods. Years of work by top scientists and aviation experts have resulted in a program that sends customers flying Listerine Cool Mint Breath strips or a can of Campbell’s Chunky Minestrone with Italian Sausage – but not both at once – as a gift. If it’s science fiction, it’s being played for laughs.

A decade is an eternity in technology, but still, drone delivery doesn’t come close to the scale or ingenuity of Amazon’s original promotional video. This gap between shiny claims and mundane reality happens all the time in Silicon Valley. Self-driving cars, the metaverse, flying cars, robots, neighborhoods or even cities built from scratch, virtual universities that can compete with Harvard, artificial intelligence – the list of delayed and unfulfilled promises is long.

“It’s easy to have an idea,” said Rodney Brooks, a robotics entrepreneur and frequent critic of technology companies’ propaganda. “It is difficult to turn them into reality. “Deploying them at scale is even more difficult.”

Amazon said last month that drone delivery would be expanded to Britain, Italy and another undisclosed US city By the end of 2024, Yet a question remains even at the threshold of development. Now that drones finally exist, at least in limited form, why did we think we needed them in the first place?

Dominic Lord and Leah Silverman live in the drone zone of College Station. They are fans of Amazon and regularly place orders for ground delivery. Drones are another matter, even though the service is free for Amazon Prime members. While it’s great to have stuff unloaded in your driveway, at least the first few times, there are a number of obstacles to getting stuff done this way.

Only one item can be delivered at a time. Its weight cannot exceed five pounds. It can’t be very big. It can’t be a breakable thing, because the drone drops it from 12 feet. Drones cannot fly when it is too hot, too windy or too rainy.

You need to be at home to complete the landing goal and make sure some porch pirate doesn’t run off with your item or it doesn’t roll out into the street (which once happened with Mr. Lord and Ms. Silverman happened) . But your car can’t be in the driveway. Landing the drone in the backyard will avoid some of these problems, but not if there are trees.

Amazon also warned customers that drone delivery is not available during periods of high demand for drone delivery.

The other active US test site is Lockford, California, in the Central Valley. On a recent afternoon, the Lockford site seemed largely moribund, with only three cars in the parking lot. Amazon said it was making deliveries via drone in Lockford and arranged for a New York Times reporter to return to the site. It also arranged an interview with David Carbone, the former Boeing executive who ran the drone program. The company later canceled both without explanation.

a corporate blog post On October 18, it said drones had safely delivered “hundreds” of household items to College Station since December, and some medications could now be delivered to customers there. Lockford was not mentioned.

After Ms. Silverman and Mr. Lord expressed initial interest in the drone program, Amazon offered $100 in gift certificates due in October 2022. But their service didn’t begin until June, and then was suspended during the extreme summer heat when the drones couldn’t fly.

However, encouragement continued. The couple got an email the other day from Amazon about Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter, which normally costs $5.38 but was a “free gift” while supplies last. They ordered it, and after a while a drone dropped a large box containing a small jar. Amazon said that “some promotional items” are being offered “as a welcome.”

“We don’t really need anything they give us for free,” said Ms. Silverman, a 51-year-old novelist and caregiver. “The drone feels more like a toy than anything else – a toy that wastes huge amounts of paper and cardboard.”

Texas weather hinders critical deliveries. Mr. Lord, a 54-year-old professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M, ordered a drug through the mail. By the time he took out the packet, the medicine had melted. He hopes drones can eventually tackle such problems.

He said, “Even knowing that it is in the experimental phase, I still look at this program positively.”

Amazon says the drone will improve over time. It announced a new model, the MK30, last year and released photos in October. The Mk30, which is expected to enter service by the end of 2024, was touted as having greater range, the ability to fly in bad weather and a 25 percent reduction in “perceived noise.”

When Amazon started working on drones years ago, it took two or three days for the retailer to ship many items to customers. He worried that it was vulnerable to potential competitors whose sellers were more local, including Google and eBay. Drones were all about speed.

“We can deliver in half an hour,” Mr. Bezos promised on “60 Minutes.”

For a while, drones were the next big thing. Google developed its own drone service, Wing, which now works with Walmart to deliver items in parts of Dallas and Frisco, Texas. Start-ups received funding – about $2.5 billion was invested between 2013 and 2019, according to aerospace consultancy Teal Group. experienced venture capitalist Tim Draper said in 2013 That “everything from pizza delivery to personal shopping can be handled by drones.” Uber Eats announced a food delivery drone At the end of 2019. The future was uncertain.

Amazon really started thinking long term. It envisioned, and received a patent for, a drone resupply vehicle that would hover in the sky at an altitude of 45,000 feet. That’s a cut above commercial airplanes, but Amazon said it could use the vehicles to deliver hot dinners to customers.

Yet progress on the ground was slow, sometimes due to technical reasons and sometimes due to the company’s corporate DNA. The same aggressive confidence that created a trillion-dollar business undermined Amazon’s efforts to work with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The attitude was: ‘We’re Amazon. We’ll convince the FAA,'” said a former Amazon drone executive, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. “The FAA wants That companies should come with great humility and great transparency. This is not Amazon’s strength.”

A more complex issue was getting the technology to the point where it was safe not just most of the time but all the time. The first drone that falls on someone’s head, or catches a cat and takes off, takes the program back another decade, especially if it’s filmed.

“Part of the DNA of the tech industry is that you can accomplish things you never thought you could accomplish,” said Neil Woodward, who spent four years as a senior manager in Amazon’s drone program. ” “But the truth is that the laws of physics don’t change.”

Mr. Woodward, now retired, spent years in the astronaut program at NASA before moving into the private sector.

“When you work for the government, you have 535 people on your board of directors” – he was referring to Congress – “and a good portion of them want to take away your funding because they have other priorities,” he said. Said. “This leaves government agencies very risk averse. In the Amazon, you are given a lot of rope, but you can get out with your skis.

Ultimately, there must be a market. As Mr. Woodward said, using an old Silicon Valley adage: “Do dogs like dog food? Sometimes dogs don’t do that.”

Archie Conner, 82, lives a stone’s throw from Mr. Lord and Ms. Silverman. He sees drones less as a retail innovation and more as a marketing one.

“When you hear drones, you naturally think of Amazon. It’s really out-of-the-box thinking, even if no one orders,” he said. “Just a few days ago drones were in the news. People say, ‘Wow, Amazon did that.'”

Mr. Connor also orders free Skippy peanut butter but forgets to specify a landing target, so the drone is gone. Then he ordered again. Meanwhile, an Amazon delivery person brought the first jar. So now he and his wife Belinda have two jars.

“We haven’t found anything we really want to pay for,” Mr Conner said. “But we did enjoy the free peanut butter.”

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