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Amazon's 30-Minutes-or-Less Delivery by Drone

Yesterday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sat down with Charlie Rose and unveiled Amazon’s next big step for their fulfillment centers: delivery by drone in under 30 minutes.

Jeff Bezos: These generations of vehicles, it could be a 10-mile radius from a fulfillment center. So, in urban areas, you could actually cover very significant portions of the population. And so, it won’t work for everything; you know, we’re not gonna deliver kayaks or table saws this way. […] This is… this is all an R&D project.

Charlie Rose: With drones, there’s somebody sitting somewhere in front of a screen.

Jeff Bezos: Not these; these are autonomous. So you give ‘em instructions of which GPS coordinates to go to, and they take off and they fly to those GPS coordinates.

The whole process is really fascinating and the video is even more convincing that this isn’t just an R&D project; Bezos wants this to be a real system of delivery within the next five years.

Imagine you’re at home on a Friday night and order a Pizza Hut deep dish and that new Xbox game you’ve been wanting to try from Amazon. Within 30 minutes of ordering, they’ll both be at your door. This is cool.

However, there are a lot of situations where an autonomous drone just can’t get to places that a person can. Furthermore, there is a whole list of things that could be problematic for drone delivery:

Now, I assume Amazon won’t show you the Prime Air option if your delivery address is outside their drones’ radius of reach, however will it also be hidden for cases of bad weather and apartment deliveries? Bezos doesn’t answer these questions. He does say that the Prime Air project is in an early stage, and that actual delivery-by-drone is still a couple of years away:

I’m an optimist […] I know it can’t be before 2015, because that’s the earliest we could get the rules from the FAA. My guess is that’s, that’s probably a little optimistic. But could it be, you know, four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.

Fun or failure? Time will have to tell. I have no doubt that the shipping industry will be disrupted within the next ten years, but I don’t know if drones can physically replace the agile and versatile abilities of a person on the scale that Amazon needs for this to be a viable option to most of their customers.

Later on in the interview, Bezos and Rose get into a more introspective discussion about Amazon as a business. Surprisingly, despite Amazon’s behemoth presence, Bezos doesn’t at all believe that Amazon is invincible.

Jeff Bezos: Companies have short life spans Charlie. And Amazon will be disrupted one day.

Charlie Rose: And you worry about that?

Jeff Bezos: I don’t worry about it ‘cause I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are, you know, the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.

Charlie Rose: And your job is to make sure that you delay that date?

Jeff Bezos: I would love for it to be after I’m dead.

Delaying the date to inevitable disruption. This is exactly why I’m not sold on companies like Snapchat and the next “hot” startup being worth billions upon billions of dollars: if Amazon, a company that moves millions of physical goods, needs to have a delivery-by-drone R&D project to “delay” the inevitable disruption, how much less than will it take to disrupt an app that sends pictures to your friends?

Not much.

Monday, 2 December 2013