There are lots of reasons why Amazon’s science fiction style experiment with delivery drones may not work. There are lots of reasons to think it may actually represent a pretty profound move forward with technology. Yet the focus across the media is on privacy.
Amazon has revealed a new partnership with the UK government to test its delivery drones, known as Amazon Prime Air, in UK suburbs and rural areas. If it’s successful, then eventually, if you order a product from Amazon, you will get it delivered within 30 minutes – at least that’s the theory.
Up to now, the idea has hit a hurdle called rules and regulations – worldwide, with the US a particular problem area. Then again, we are talking flying objects, there is a good reason for such rules, after all the safety implications are pretty important. In the UK, there is this rule that drones cannot be flown out of the pilot’s sight.
But the UK government has shown a fair degree of pragmatism at a time when most governments have not yet woken up to the opportunity. Amazon says that the UK government is more flexible.
But the focus across the media has been on privacy implications. Would you want drones, armed with a camera, flying over your garden? Supposing someone hacks into the data – it’s a scary thought.
Then again, Amazon says its drones won’t carry a camera, they will navigate by sensors instead. So if that is the case, what’s the worry over privacy?
Safety concerns may be a bigger issue. Controlling flying objects with accuracy is not easy, their trajectory can be influenced by the wind and air currents. A bigger fear relates to the idea that if the drones fell into the wrong hands they could carry things a good deal scarier than a new item of clothing that is the wrong size.
But let’s say that these problems are overcome.
Imagine the disruption. Compare the advantages of physically shopping in retail centres, as opposed to shopping online. Traditional shopping may have three key advantages. You can see the object in its flesh, try on an item of clothing for example. You can get the product there and then, no need to wait for delivery. And it gets you out, maybe even provides a social benefit.
Virtual and augmented reality may go some way to cover the first of those advantages. Now it seems that Amazon Prime Air can overcome the second. It seems that for online selling, the good times are going to get better, it is not so good for traditional retailing.
Then there is disruption at the delivery end. Think of the jobs. Postman Pat may become Drone Don.
It’s an another example of increasing automation. This is no bad thing per se. It means greater efficiencies, it means less hassle for consumers, and it may well mean cheaper cost of delivery – eventually. But it illustrates how, in a world of increasing automation, jobs will be shed and maybe in numbers that have no precedent. Economic theory says that new jobs will be created to replace the ones that are lost. This may be right, but for this to happen, the government may have to do an awful lot of nudging.