Amazon's Prime Air is the coolest worst idea ever

Drones delivering packages - do we really need this?

The idea is so crazy that you'd think last night was April 1 instead of December 1. Last night on CBS' "60 Minutes", Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos delivered a surprise to Charlie Rose, discussing their idea for "Amazon Prime Air", which aims to have drones delivering packages from Amazon distribution centers to customers' homes in 30 minutes.

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A video from Amazon shows the concept, in which a happy customer realizes he needs a skate tool, and he goes online to Amazon to order it so he can get the tool in 30 minutes. Future!

The folks at 60 Minutes seemed pretty impressed with the big surprise, as they discussed this in their own video on their "60 Minutes Overtime" site:

OK, let's take a few steps back and put on our Skeptical Hat and Cynical Cloak for a few minutes, and see why this is the "coolest worst idea ever."

First, this whole 60 Minutes piece on Amazon was really just a big PR stunt to get people to talk about Amazon during the busiest shopping weekend of the year. Not a coincidence that today is Cyber Monday, in which everyone at work is flocking to Amazon and other shopping sites to get more holiday shopping done.

Second, this isn't around the corner - even Bezos admitted that this is four to five years away, and it needs FAA approval and a whole bunch of other government approvals before the first drone takes off. The GOVERNMENT needs to get involved - the same government that is having issues with setting up health care web sites correctly, and the same FAA that only recently allowed electronic devices on airplanes (and might even be reconsidering that rule). I highly doubt that this government would be able to act this quickly to approve the idea of hundreds or thousands of drones zipping around a neighborhood.

Third, there are hundreds of other questions that come to mind. Let's say that the government hurdle is cleared. Let's start the laundry list of other potential issues for this program:

  • How does Amazon prevent people from stealing the packages that arrive?
  • Can other people shoot them out of the sky?
  • Can children/pets get hurt from the drones as they're landing?
  • What do customers do with the yellow box once the drone has delivered it?
  • Is there a drone return flight to pick up the empty yellow box?
  • How many distribution centers need to be set up to provide 30-minute delivery to customers?
  • How much extra will this cost Amazon customers? Will that price be worth it?
  • Will this service be available 24/7? Can I order something at 2 a.m. for 2:30 a.m. delivery?
  • How do you deliver these to apartment complexes or high-rise skyscrapers in big cities?
  • What happens when the weather turns bad? Can these drones fly in weather like a rainstorm, hurricane or blizzard?

    Fourth, are there any products that we really need that quickly? The guy in the video ordered a "Skate Tool" - was there no other method available to him? I suppose if the Home Depot or other hardware store is closed, this might make sense (Sunday, after-hours delivery), but that begs the question of how urgent do we need this? Is our consumer-based society so desperate that we need 30-minute delivery of (non-food) stuff?

    Taking off my Cynical Cloak/Skeptical Hat for a second, Amazon does have an amazing business, and over this past Black Friday weekend (Black Weekend?), I used their service for a lot of my holiday shopping. I wandered into a Toys R Us store on Black Friday to look for a specific product for my son, and was annoyed that it was sold out. Later that night, I ordered everything I needed from Amazon, and it will be delivered (by a human being) by the end of the week. Problem solved.

    A second example from my life - over the weekend I was setting up the Christmas lights on the outdoor steps and noticed that one of the light bulbs was out and I needed to buy a replacement bulb. The end result was a more-than-30-minute trip to The Home Depot to get the bulbs, which also resulted in me buying some additional decorations (a 3-foot Darth Vader Christmas statue, but I digress). In the future-drone-delivery world, I could have just done other things with my 30 minutes instead of spending extra money (and gas) to drive to the retail store.

    So maybe drone-delivery isn't such a bad idea. If any company can accomplish something as crazy and weird as "delivery-by-drone" seems to be, it's Amazon.

    But come on, let's be realistic here on when (or even if) that will happen.

    Got any other questions/problems/issues that Amazon needs to figure out before drone-by-delivery occurs? Let me know in the comments area.

    Keith Shaw rounds up the best in geek video in his ITworld.tv blog. Follow Keith on Twitter at @shawkeith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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