Dale McFeatters: Column: Droning on with Amazon.com

Scripps Howard News Service Published:

Unless there's something to that myth about Muslim martyrs being issued 72 virgins in paradise, it's probably of no comfort to the first adherent of radical Islam killed by an unmanned drone that his death has given rise to a potential revolution in the business of delivering small parcels to America doorsteps.

Jeff Bezos believes that in five years fleets of drones will deliver small packages within minutes of the order being placed. Bezos could be dismissed as a nut except that he's the founder and chief executive of the revolutionary and astonishingly successful retail operation, Amazon.com. He would be a bad person to bet against, even with an impenetrable thicket of federal regulations to navigate before the first tchotchke is dropped on a doorstep.

The prototype Amazon drone is about a yard in diameter, with eight propellers powered by eight lithium ion polymer battery packs (frankly, we have no idea what those are but that's what the literature says) and a lifting capacity of five pounds. Amazon says 86 percent of its deliveries are five pounds or less. If you order an anvil, the company will have to deliver it by truck and you'll have to wait two or three days.

The drones don't have to contend with traffic or search for parking spaces, although if the concept catches on and the air is filled with little robot helicopters, maybe they'll have to.

The technology exists for the drones to fly on their own, using GPS to navigate and radar to avoid flying into utility poles and sensors so it doesn't slice up the family dog, but initially for Amazon's and the customer's peace of mind the drones will be directed by controllers back at headquarters.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down and the number of Taliban and al-Qaeda second-in-commands rapidly dwindling, there should be plenty of highly skilled drone controllers coming on the market.

Admittedly, delivering a rush order of "Fifty Shades of Grey" doesn't pack quite the thrill of unleashing a Hellfire missile into a terrorist hideout, but in peacetime we all have to make sacrifices.

The professional paranoids are already worrying about Amazon drones being hacked and your new Rolodex watch being delivered to a shack down by the rail yard or drones hovering outside your bedroom window. These are surmountable problems; less so is the threat of deliberate vandalism.

According to The Washington Post, which Bezos owns (and if he thinks newspapers are a good investment, shouldn't you?), residents of one Colorado town have considered giving out hunting licenses for drones.

First off, if it's a military surplus drone, the sound of gunfire might set off some atavistic reflex deep within its wiring, one that escaped the civilian conversion, and it might seek to give you a chance to find out if that 72 virgins thing is really true.

Or, Amazon could cut off deliveries to the town, notifying the residents that there are packages waiting for them but they'll have to pick them up at the company's headquarters in Seattle.

A billionaire with his own fleet of drones is not someone you want to mess with.

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