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Amazon’s ‘Octocopters’: The Droning Ghost of Commerce Future?

| December 2, 2013
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Just in time for Cyber Monday viewing, we can show you (in the video above) the latest brainstorm from retail genius Jeff “Amazon” Bezos. It’s the Amazon “octocopter,” a drone aircraft that the company says one day will make it possible to deliver purchases to some customers in just 30 minutes.

Bezos unveiled his new toy on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday night, with host-personality Charlie Rose telling the audience, “Tonight, for the first time, you’ll be introduced to perhaps Amazon’s boldest venture ever.”

The segment gives a pretty thorough overview of how Amazon fills orders, estimated at 300 per second for Cyber Monday, at its nearly 100 fulfillment centers worldwide. At one point, Rose asks Bezos, “What is Amazon today?” Bezos responds:

“I would define Amazon by our big ideas, which are customer-centricity, putting the customer at the center of everything we do; invention — we like to pioneer, we like to explore, we like to go down dark alleys and see what’s on the other side.”

Bezos also emphsized that his company begins projects with a long view in mind, being willing to wait five, six or seven years for a return on investments instead of being impatient for, and needing, a more immediate payback. That willingness to wait explains in part the company’s research-and-development effort on aerial delivery, which Bezos told Rose “is years away” from reality.

‘We like to pioneer, we like to explore, we like to go down dark alleys and see what’s on the other side.’

Bezos said the octocopters as currently configured could carry parcels up to five pounds, which would account for 86 percent of Amazon’s sales, and could make deliveries within a 10-mile radius of fulfillment centers. Another selling point for the drones, he says: They’re green, being powered by electric motors. Summarizing the challenges still facing the project, he said “the hard part here is putting in all the redundancy, all the reliability, all the systems you need to say, ‘Look, this thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighborhood. … I don’t want anybody to think this is just around the corner.”

(Amazon is not the first enterprise to talk about delivery by drone. Domino’s Pizza has a prototype air-delivery vehicle under development (see Stephen Colbert’s take here). Closer to home, Silicon Valley Tacocopter promises aerial delivery of Mexican cuisine.)

Our takeaway on the Amazon octocopter: It will be great to have an electric toothbrush, a Kindle or the first volume of “The Hunger Games” trilogy dropped on the front doorstep. But listen to these machines. They really are drones, whining little commerce-driven mosquitoes. In the 24-hour instant airborne delivery world we’ll soon inhabit, that sound will be really annoying. People seeking a little peace and quiet will take to chasing them down with softball bats and attacking them. So in addition to making sure the autonomous delivery craft don’t land on our heads, maybe Bezos and his engineers can turn that future drone into a whisper.

Here’s the video from last night’s “60 Minutes” segment:

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Category: Business and Finance

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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