Monday, December 02, 2013

Amazon go-bots in the air (updated)

[Yes, just as expected, some already are loading their shotguns...]

[Amazon is already presenting this on their site.]

This will of course raise howls from luddites, but I'd love it, it's almost enough to make one move to an urban area.

I wonder though where they will drop the parcels, especially in the case of apartment buildings.

I've actually been thinking about how we could make delivery of physical items follow the development of digital delivery. I had not considered drones, but of course, it's perfect.


Kent McManigal said...

Pretty cool. I wonder what happens to the little yellow plastic box your purchase rides in. Do you keep it? Mail it back?

CalgaryMark said...

For apartments - the drone could tap itself on your window, or drop it on the balcony. Presumably the drone has to have a camera and operator to ensure it goes to the right place - so, do I want a drone peering through my 10th floor window? NBL!

Ken said...

I presume this is a joke. The current rules on drones is that they must be visually observed, and I expect that isn't going to change a lot.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

If anybody can ride it through, it'd be Amazon (or Apple).

My apartment, and many here in Eu, doesn't have a balcony.
And I think a visual link to look through your window would have many up in arms, and I'm not so sure about it myself. :-)

emptyspaces said...

Apartment buildings could build a little helipad on the roof for these, they can't weigh much.

What would be cool is if you could leave a package outside your door and have one of these guys come take it to FedEx or something.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

I'm sure that'll happen also, if the naysayers don't stall this entirely.

John Krumm said...

Not likely to work for a huge list of reasons. An Amazon imitation drone that could drop a 5 pound bomb in front of a government building would be one concern of many. Plus there's the simple fact that one delivery van carrying 100's of packages on a regular route is likely far more efficient than drones flying all over the place. The drone is better with one package, the van better with 100.

Bert said...

In my view, this is a far more credible effort:

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Surely you jest, ol' pal?
A working android is ages away, while the drones are pretty much here.

John Krumm said...

Actually I could see self driving package delivery cars actually allowed (as opposed to drones), with or without robots (maybe just a robot arm). Perhaps one could have a simple delivery box at the house that works with the system, a larger and more secure mailbox.

Bru said...

The little boy in the first video is playing outside of the house before the drone shows up. He has seen the drone before and is just smart enough to know that it's bringing something good. So, he reaches for the drone as it is landing.

Goodbye fingers.

Hello lawsuit.

Repeat with cats, dogs, and birds.

Bert said...

Surely you jest, ol' pal?

Nope. Think about it. Drones could perhaps excel (given a windless world) in situations involving regular routes, like a milk run for example. The promise of quicker and cheaper service for frequent deliveries could be enough to motivate one to set up a usable drop pad and go through the frustrations of "breaking in" an automated system. But you can forget that if all one needs is the occasional delivery; not everybody aims to buy everything from Amazon, ya know. I, for one, love brick-and-mortar stores.

A regularly scheduled delivery would also make it practical to wait for the drone and collect the goods before they are stolen. Now, you'll say the deliveries should be protected by law, blah blah blah... as if that ever stopped thieves. And try ordering delicatessen and you'll see what the neighbor's dog makes of your rules and regulations.

For the average Joe like me to set up a physical drop point, likely involving some sort of more-or-less secure box, and to trust that setup enough to have a camera or even a book delivered and sitting unattended for an undeterminate length of time? Nah. What? Bezos expects me to man the windows and watch the skies for his drones? ROTFL!! Like that's ever going to happen!!

One scenario where I could see drone-based deliveries happen in an urban environment would be to have fixed drop spots. Think of something resembling a vending machine sitting on a nearby street corner: the drone drops the package in there, and then you get some e-mail/SMS notification with a passcode to go and retrieve the goods. A well designed drop point could of course store and retrieve multiple packages so that some forgotten item wouldn't hog the box for extended periods, etc. Heck, it could even have compartments for warm and/or cold storage, if need be. Also, one would be relieved from the hassle of the initial setting up of the drop point. Such a scenario could be efficient and, despite not having the convenience of a personalized delivery, it could be an even more desirable model for commuters, especially if one can select any drop point for delivery. And this would work just the same whether the package is delivered by drone or truck.

I have no hard data on this, but I would suspect that the majority of light drones today have a relatively short lifespan, I would expect much less than 100 outings before some serious crash occurs. And that's with a motivated human maintaining, watching over and actively guiding the thing (I will always put far more trust in a guy who dished hundreds of dollars for his toy than I ever would into the typical couldn't-care-less pothead that Amazon is likely to hire to care for their drones). Maybe you think that you're ready to deal with drones crashing left and right in your neighborhood, but color me skeptical as to the reception the general public will make to that kind of novelty.

Say what you will of this haywire-strung half-baked idea, it just won't happen outside of very limited areas for a very long time. Yes, in some wealthy suburb where everybody has a backyard and the skies are clear and infrastructures are underground and enough money is spent locally to justify a nearby fulfillment center and delivery trucks are frowned upon and and and... But I would guess that you can forget this in a densely populated area like the one where you live, where delivery vehicles will still rule for a long time.

And, to be honest, I don't quite see how drones could significantly improve on the regular service you already get as they would cover only the "last mile" anyway, the rest of the supply chain remaining unchanged. To beat overnight delivery would mean that the item you're ordering is sitting on some Amazon shelf within a few kilometers of your place. That's so very unlikely that it's almost laughable, save for a few commodities that are stocked everywhere.

Bert said...

On the other hand, a robot just smart and capable enough to navigate from the curb to your door and then perhaps locate and use the doorbell (e-mail/SMS being more likely), wait for an answer and finally handle the delivery handshake protocol, now, that would be smart. You want your delivery at 3am, or some time during the weekend? Not a problem, no union involved. The goods are valuable? Not a problem, the robot records everything along the route. Some imbecile stole the goods? The robot has his picture in high definition, and already sent a report to the cops!

The problem with deploying small autonomous robots is always the same: unavailability of a suitable system for sufficient on-board energy storage. Small gas-powered generators are as noisy and annoying as possible, fuel cells typically run way too hot to be safe around people, and batteries don't last anywhere long enough for anything other than simple wheeled carriers. [ Moving a wheeled cart like an office mail delivery bot or even a wharehouse picker over a flat surface is the ideal scenario, energy-wise. Such robots operating in controlled environments have existed for quite a while now. But a robot capable of efficiently navigating the typically messy, human-oriented (sub)urban outdoors environment is much more complex and requires a lot more energy to operate. That's where batteries fall short. ]

Here, we have a problem where the robot isn't expected to operate more than a few minutes before returning to it's charging station inside the delivery truck. It can even have more than one battery pack charged and ready to swap for intensive runs, effectively lifting the power supply limitation. Its "brain" can reside in and be powered by the truck. It does not have to be all that smart as it can always turn into a tele-presence unit for a human agent, should a problem ultimately arise, but covering a typical delivery scenario in a fully autonomous fashion is a much lesser problem than that of a self-driving car to boot, and those exist today.

In short, it's very feasible and would integrate much better into our everyday lives. I would bet my chips on the bot over the drone, anytime.

Ultimately, in more evolved systems, the need for local fulfillment centers will be eliminated, with goods travelling for extended distances aboard a variety of automated carriers capable of autonomously exchanging packages between them. Your order would then be automatically routed through any number of vehicles over ground, sea or air. But the "last mile" into densely populated areas will always remain a challenge, though, and I believe that the road paradigm is too deeply rooted in our lives to see fundamental changes in transportation patterns happening any time soon - this last mile will keep being covered by ground vehicles for some time ahead. That the delivery truck could, upon reaching the curb and depending on the observed context, decide whether to send a ground robot or a low-flying drone, or even just plainly wait for you to show up to pick up your parcel is entirely possible, though.

Ken said...

Maybe when we have drones like in Iain Banks Culture series it might work. Seriously, it needs two things: high degree of passive safety i.e. it doesn't fall out of the sky and a high degree of adaptability meaning that it doesn't run into things.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

OK, good arguments, Bert.

Anonymous said...

Something you'll never hear:

"Good arguments, Kent."