Copyright 2013 John T. Reed
On 60 Minutes last weekend, Amazon head Jeff Bezos showed Charlie Rose a new toy: an 8-rotor helicopter drone that can pick up, deliver, and leave a five-pound package.
Bezos said Amazon was going to deliver packages by this method in 4 or 5 years.
No, he’s not.
When I was about 13, one of our ten-year-old school textbooks had the statement, “We will probably be commuting to work by helicopters by 1960.” I was 13 in 1959.
The issue is not whether we can make a drone chopper the size of an ink-jet printer. We can. At the Realtors convention in San Francisco on November 8, 2013, I heard a talk by the owner of a drone company. They have all kinds of drones—choppers, fixed wing, you name it. They sell them for about $500 each. I expect that Bezos just painted his company logo on one of them implying his company invented it.
But it’s not feasible. Helicopters fall out of the sky. When they do, they kill or injure people and damage property. When the company in question is owned by a famous billionaire, he will get gleefully sued by everyone below one of his malfunctioning drones.
If I understood the convention guy who was asked about just this, at present, you can only fly a drone over your own property legally. I have also been told that neither humans nor their unpiloted vehicles can fly below 1,000 feet except to take off and land at a licensed airport or heliport. There are also spying/privacy issues.
60 Minutes showed the drone delivering a package to a person who was obviously waiting at the window for it. It did not drop the package on the doorstep. It dropped it on the pavement about 20 feet away from the front door—our where rain and snow and sleet would fall on it and thieves would be more likely to steal it. At present, my Amazon packages are either put inside my mailbox by the mailman or on my covered front stoop by the UPS guy. The walkway from our front door to the sidewalk is under a large tree. How is Amazon’s octocopter going to maneuver around the tree?
Bezos said there would be no remote control pilot looking at a TV camera picture from the drone. Rather, the drone would be autonomous and simply go to the address in question with no human control. Really!? And precisely where at my address, which describes a 40% of an acre property, will the Amazon drone, in its infinite, autonomous wisdom, put the package down? Better not be our drive way. We would likely drive over it when back out out of the garage.
What about multifamily apartments and condos, business addresses, rural addresses, power lines? How do these choppers fly in high winds, rain, snow, hail, in the dark? Can it tell it is landing in a puddle?
Then there are kids. I used to be one. You think kids are going to let Amazon octocopters land in their neighborhood without attacking them with bb guns, sling shots, baseballs, nets, arrows, lassos, toilet paper rolls, and a zillion other things that kids will inevitably think of. And at the moment of landing, kids will hit them with sticks, try to reach over the top of them and hold them down by grabbing a part that is not a spinning rotor, put a large box over them, throw a blanket or tree branch over them.
Can the drones be repainted and repurposed like stolen cell phones or computers? If so, they will be when they land.
Swimming pools are legally designated as “attractive nuisances” because they attract, and often kill, children. Detergents that look like candy are now hurting children. Amazon octocopters are obviously the same.
The mail and UPS trucks drive by my house daily. They usually arrive at a particular time. Will the Amazon drone arrive earlier? If not, what is the point?
Those trucks have enough capacity to carry a whole days worth of deliveries. Amazon’s drones carry precisely one package. They fly to the house, deliver it, then fly back to the distribution center to get another. That’s a bit inefficient to say the least.
On 60 Minutes, Bezos said his drones were green. That’s a lie. My UPS man told me today his truck carries a day’s worth of packages and he visits 240 to 250 addresses per day to make deliveries. His truck runs on compressed natural gas. I have been to the local UPS depot whence his truck came to see the CNG gas pumps there and written about CNG-powered vehicles which I recommend as a good back-up for hyperinflation and other natural and manmade disasters.
Bezos’s octocopters run on batteries. Those have to be recharged, as well as manufactured. I have read stuff about electric cars saying that manufacture of batteries is environmentally unattractive and burns a lot of energy itself. I could not find a satisfactory indication of the cost per mile to run an octocopter, but note that the octocopter would have to make 250 round trips of something like 10 miles each to match the deliveries made by a single UPS truck. That’s 250 x 10 = 2,500 miles. How many miles does a UPS truck travel per day? I found no definitive answer on line but some indications that it is about 140 miles. So the question is does operating a CNG UPS truck going 140 miles cost more than an octocopter going 2,500? 2,500 miles is the distance between San Francisco and New York City. 140 miles is the distance between Providence Rhode Island and New York City. How long can an electric helicopter run before it dare not leave on another sortie without a recharge? How long does it take to fully recharge an octocopter? Will the beehive have as many octopters charging as flying on any given day? How many miles can an octocoter go in its life? If it’s 100,000, that would be a mere 40 days.
This is green?
And what the hell does the distribution center look like? A drone beehive with thousands of drones landing and taking off every minute? How do the packages get to the airstrip? I am picturing an airstrip like an an airport only with thousands of employees constantly running among the buzzing drones laying packages on the ground on numbered spots that are 10 or 15 feet from the nearest other numbered spots. How does the drone learn what the address of the next package is? What sort of air-traffic control do they have to keep the drones from crashing into each other during this feeding frenzy? Bezos did his demo on 60 Minutes with one drone. Who does he think he’s kidding? Charlie Rose I guess.
This is absurd on its face. I am disappointed that 60 Minutes did not see through it and leave it out of the segment or at least point out the absurdity of it and simply use it to illustrate that Bezos, who also has a space program, may be rich, but he is not a serious person.
John T. Reed