Amazon’s drones aren’t coming soon. But what will the world look like when they do?

6th December, 2013

Let’s not ask whether, in two years’ time, Amazon will deliver your last-minute Christmas shopping by octocopter. It won’t – the idea is a glorious publicity stunt.
The current objections to filling the skies with delivery drones are tremendous. The hovering robots are unreliable and likely to bump into things, and each other; the energy costs are high; and, of course, we look forward to Amazon fending off litigants after a miniature helicopter makes a hard landing somewhere inconvenient.
But while we tend to get excited and then disappointed by short-term techno-hype, the longer-term changes are often more profound than we expect. We typically lack the imagination to understand what they might be – nothing ever looks as dated as old science fiction. Regulatory obstacles are there to be surmounted: we already drive heavy chunks of metal around, killing people every day, so it is safe to assume that we will get over any safety concerns about drones.
So let us assume that they do one day cloud our skies. That brings us to a far more interesting question: not whether cheap, safe, legal drones will fetch our shopping, but what would the world look like if they did?
Prediction one: a sharper distinction between the hoarders and the minimalists. As the economist Tyler Cowen has pointed out, fast, cheap drone delivery allows you to keep low inventories. Say goodbye to overstuffed freezers and groaning bookshelves: the Ocado-copter will deliver whatever you need for tonight’s dinner party given 30 minutes’ notice. This is an unclutterer’s dream. But while some will use on-demand delivery to keep their homes free of unnecessary junk, many people are likely to order more than they can possibly use. For most of us, cheap, immediate access to stuff is simply going to mean – well, more stuff.
Prediction two: the high street might do better than you would think. Amazon’s current business model relies on vast, efficient warehouse hubs some distance from consumers. Parcels are dispatched from Amazon’s hub, reorganised at delivery hubs by Royal Mail or other couriers, then delivered to us at home. The speed and short range of drone delivery suggests that Amazon would need many more, smaller dispatch centres much closer to consumers. Other retailers already have these: they are on the high street. It remains to be seen whether a small, internet-only warehouse operating out of a business park around the back of the railway station will actually outcompete high-street shops serving double-duty as traditional retailers and drone-dispatch hubs.
Prediction three: home delivery would be just the start. Amazon would know where you were, and with a few swipes on a smartphone app, you could tell the drone to deliver to your office or, for that matter, to bring a Coke as you pause halfway around your morning jog. When you need that delivery of emergency insulin, you may not actually be at home. Amazon will not be delivering cocaine via drones – but somebody certainly will.
Prediction four: the real benefits may come from sharing logistics, with each individual retailer or restaurateur being able to book a slot on the drone mother ship at little notice for a low fee. (Would it be an airship? Or, more prosaically, just a robot-driven lorry that cruises slowly around the neighbourhood?) Amazon – and Google, which has pioneered self-driving cars and this week announced a push into robotics – have been pioneers in “cloud computing”, where smaller players rent computer power as a service from the big boys. The swarm of currycopters may be a less metaphorical cloud – a service that anyone needing a quick delivery can rent on a whim.
Prediction five: the suburbs will benefit. Amazon’s publicity video shows a drone flying over open countryside, but the drones seem more likely to work in urban areas. Whether anyone who lives in Brooklyn or Bloomsbury will really get excited about 30-minute delivery times is an open question: you only have to walk out of the front door to have easy access to most of what you might want in a hurry. Yet those who live on the outskirts of big population centres will see the benefits of not having to get in the car and drive to a hypermarket.
Prediction six: maybe things will not really change after all. If, 15 years ago, I promised you cheap next-day delivery of almost any product you could imagine, convenient and reliable grocery delivery, and the online streaming of cheap or free video and music, you would have predicted a retailing earthquake. What is really surprising about the high street is how little it has changed. My own local high street lost a Virgin Megastore and a Borders, but the gaps have been filled by fast-fashion retailers and a Tesco Metro.
In fact, the only prediction of which I am truly confident is that whatever the really important change will be, it will take most of us by surprise.


First published in the Financial Times.

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