Don’t stifle the innovation of Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery system

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When I was a sophomore in college, we as engineering students had to take a seminar class that met once a week that featured speakers from various industries.  The point of this class was to have these guest speakers give us a taste of what the working world would be like once we graduated college.  There were several alumni who came back to give talks, but there was one speaker who sticks out the most in my memory—and he wasn’t even an engineer.

An author by the name of Scott Berkun came to speak about his book titled The Myths of Innovation.  He was offering free copies of his book if you answered one of his questions.  Almost no one raised his or her hand, but he was able to twist our arms enough to pass out all of his books.  No, I wasn’t one of the students intelligent enough to take advantage of getting a free book.  His presentation stuck out to me and I eventually purchased the book.

I ended up reading the book twice.  I wasn’t a really a reader at that point in my life, but it was that good.

As you might imagine by the title, The Myths of Innovation, the book explores how innovation can be stifled and how we can overcome that.  It dives into some of the history of various advancements in technology and thought.  Berkun uncovers a lot of the untruths in these romanticized stories and gives better accounts of what actually happened.  He ties all of this into how people today have to deal with coworkers and managers and anything else that might be a roadblock to innovation.

In other words, Berkun shows the irrationality of why some people say no to ideas.  Not all ideas are good ideas (if you’ve read around in this site, you’ve seen that we think there are plenty of bad ideas out there), but at least have a good reason as to why you think something is a bad idea.

Why am I talking about this?  At this point, I think it’s safe to say that nearly everyone has heard about Amazon’s plan to use drones in the future to deliver packages.  I found an article by Marcus Wohlsen on wired.co.uk calls the idea “nonsense.”  Wohlsen’s piece is a great example of innovation-killing thought and immediately brought me back to Berkun’s book.  Overall, it seems as though his reason for calling it nonsense is because it won’t work today.

It’s that drone delivery doesn’t make economic sense for Amazon, and it will never make sense unless the company completely overhauls its operation.

Well, maybe they will overhaul their operation.  It appears lost on Wohlsen that new technology is usually pretty expensive and takes time for it to become economically viable enough to be commonplace.  Twenty years ago cell phones were unbelievably expensive (and awful by today’s standards), but that didn’t stop businesses from pursuing the technology.  Why should this be any different?

Amazon spent five years piloting its same-day delivery programme in Seattle before branching out to one more city, Los Angeles, earlier this year. That’s an awfully long time, and the programme, known as Amazon Fresh, uses plain old trucks to deliver groceries and other items, not drones.

The company took so long to expand the programme, Bezos tells Rose, because it was trying to figure out “how to make it make financial sense.” Bezos showed Rose what was really what, but Rose didn’t see it. “What’s not to love? You order your groceries online, and we deliver ’em to your door,” Bezos told Rose before erupting into his famous laugh. “But that’s very expensive.”

What’s Wohlsen’s point here?  Does he think that the drones are going to take awhile to happen, mirroring the grocery deliveries?  He’d be correct in that assessment, but why does that make it impossible?

Wouldn’t a lightweight electric drone make all these concerns beside the point? Wouldn’t it be far cheaper to run a drone carrying a single order rather than a gas-guzzling truck? In terms of fuel, it might be cheaper. But that’s debatable, and besides, there’s more than gas to consider. Other costs would quickly mount.

These are concerns that Amazon will obviously take into account.  Remember, they’re trying to make money, so if they don’t think the drones will eventually work, they won’t pursue them.

Twenty years ago, people would laugh at the concept of this idea.  Now they’re laughing at the prospects of implementation.  Why not give it another twenty years and see what happens?

None of these logistical concerns even begin to address the question of liability and public perceptions around new technology. One kid hit in the face with an Amazon drone and Bezos’ fortune likely shrinks.

The liability question is very straight forward and is answered easily with free market property ownership theories.  Clearly, Amazon (or whoever owns the drones) is liable for the drones.

In another example, Boston.com’s Scott Mayerowitz brought up some questions about the program, with the worst being:

There are also technical questions. Who will recharge the drone batteries?

I fail to see how anyone could ask this question with a straight face.

The biggest losers could be package delivery services like the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx and UPS.

I do credit Mayerowitz for not taking the next step and claiming that this would be bad.  While he did not bring this up (thank goodness), I’ll take this opportunity to speak to how new technology like this will inevitably lead to people say, “This is going to destroy jobs in the shipping industry!”

Over and over again throughout history we see one industry overtake another, making people’s lives better and easier and growing the economy in the process.  Despite this, people will always come to defend the status quo and desire to take steps from an industry from losing its grip, usually in the name of saving jobs.  Should they have saved jobs in the horse and carriage industry when automobiles entered the marketplace?  Shouldn’t computers have caused massive unemployment?

If the drone system catches on, it will inevitably mean that more traditional shipping companies will end up trimming their workforce and begin automating their processes to keep up.  But automation and other technological advancements that cause people to lose their jobs in a given industry is nothing new.  While it might cause short term issues, the cheaper, more efficient methods allow people to spend their money (or save it) on other pursuits.  This creates new industries or puts money in other existing markets.

Try to remove yourself from the traditional modes of thinking.  Be creative and allow people to work together freely to solve problems.  Don’t put up unnecessary roadblocks.  Don’t stifle innovation with bad logic and know a little bit about history to see the parallels.

Who knows, if we do that, we might see drones delivering packages to us in the near future.

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emilchoski
Guest

Interesting idea. Although I still believe its cheaper to move goods on ground, rather than lifting them in the air, just energy-wise, unless you’re moving one item at a time. Perhaps we’ll see a lot of automated car drones making deliveries, not necessarily airborne drones. Drones will do wonders for the agriculture industry, I’m sure of that.

Rollo McFloogle
Guest
It absolutely is cheaper right now to move goods on the ground, but this technology follows the trends that any other new technology in the past has followed. Computers and cell phones were absurdly expensive (and pretty bad functionally) when they first came out. Only the rich could afford them. Now look at it. The point of the article was to say that thinking “What a terrible idea! That can’t work now!” isn’t the way to go. Why not say “That’s an idea that has some problems that need to be worked out. How can we solve them?”
thorax232
Guest

“That’s the difference between you and me.”
There’s a reason Bezo’s has the multi-million dollar business. He’s not afraid, and he’s smarter than the couch potato commentators throwing out easy criticisms that were thought of long ago.

By the way, I’m loving this site, I just found it. I added your feed to my right side bar at ancapus.com.

Rollo McFloogle
Guest

I’m glad you enjoy it! Thanks for the add.

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