Amazon’s drones: who’s laughing now?

In December 2013, Jeff Bezos prompted a few smiles from the journalists interviewing him on CBS’s 60 minutes when he announced that he was working on a project to use drones to send Amazon customers their purchases, adding that he expected the service to be available within four or five years. Few people believed him, and many dismissed his comments as a publicity stunt.

At that time, drones were still regarded by most people as little more than expensive toys for grownups, potentially dangerous, and not adequately covered by the law. The idea of using them to transport goods seemed like something out of science fiction. The models available were difficult to maneuver, typically powered by eight helicopter type horizontal propellers, and required somebody to control them from the ground, keeping them in sight at all times.

Yesterday, just three years after that fateful interview, Jeff Bezos announced that his company was already using drones to send some purchases to Amazon customers in the Cambridge area of the United Kingdom, and posted videos and photographs showing that his supposedly “crazy idea” was now a reality and greatly improved. The design of drones has improved notably, they are fully autonomous, and able to read their environment to avoid accidents and collisions.

The drone delivery project is being tested in the English countryside not just because of the lack of tall buildings and other obstacles, but the result of Amazon’s threat to the US authorities in December 2014 that it would go elsewhere unless the country’s strict laws restricting the commercial use of drones were relaxed and speed up the approval of the devices Bezos wanted to use.

Unable to overcome the objections of the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the company moved its research to the outskirts of London, keeping its projects in the United States going, while setting up new ones in Austria and Israel. Bezos has made it clear that if nations want to attract technology, research, jobs and create new economies, they will have to adapt quickly.

In just three years, Amazon has gone from an announcement dismissed by many people to sending real packages to real and paying customers. The speed at which technology evolves can still surprise us, taking us from incredulity to reality within astonishingly short time frames

Even today, when I discuss drones at conferences, I encounter skepticism: “it’ll never fly,” they joke, saying that drones are vulnerable to attacks or theft, or that they are dangerous and could fall out of the sky at any moment. Meanwhile, Amazon has invested in their development, has set up a pilot project and converted them into something viable, that can be put to any number of uses, and something people are prepared to pay for, so that a much-needed product can come flying to our home in just 30 minutes.

The best antidote to skepticism are facts: the same kind of people who dismissed the idea of high-speed rail travel or intercontinental jets, today scoff at the idea of using drones for delivering goods. The difference between now and a century ago is that we can go from concept to reality in just a few years. We definitely live in exponential times.

We will continue to hear absurd objections for a few years yet. We will continue to hear complaints from the owners of increasingly inefficient businesses. We will continue to see efforts to impose non-market strategies, demanding that the regulator protect them, and all based on worn-out arguments that are nothing more than feeble attempts to avoid the inevitable, as though progress were some kind of threat to our wellbeing.

Clearly, some people are terrified of the speed of change taking place today. But such is the nature of technology: it improves things at light speed, moving from the drawing board to reality ever faster. And as we know, once something is invented, it can’t be uninvented.

Meanwhile, drones are becoming a familiar site in the English countryside. And in Seattle, a visionary able to increase a company’s value by 44,404% in less than 20 years, as well as turning round a loss-making newspaper by focusing on its online activities looks round at his critics and laughs.

(En español, aquí)