In a 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose, Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos dazzled the world with Amazon Prime Air, an R&D project to use drones to deliver Amazon packages under five pounds within 30 minutes of an order. Before he could completely explain the idea, critics pounced on all the reasons this would never work.
With all of the good drones can do in business and society, there are significant challenges that anyone looking to deploy drones would need to overcome before a project could get off the ground.
Right now, the FAA doesn't allow the commercial nor personal use of drones, though the agency freely and publicly admits it's exploring ways to integrate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS – another name for drones) into the National Airspace System (NAS). There are a number of good reasons for their caution that every commercial and personal venture should consider:
Safety of individuals
Imagine walking down the street or driving your car and a drone whizzes by, or worse crashes right into you. Sounds like some wild Alfred Hitchcock movie with giant mechanical flies swarming our cities. Safety is one of the main reasons why the FAA currently requires all aircrafts to fly at a certain altitude and depart and land only in designated areas. Routes are carefully mapped and every aircraft is manned and monitored by numerous people. Drones, as Bezos has envisioned them, are programmed and self-guided and comprise new territory for the FAA.
For every good use of drones, there are countless ways that the technology could be hijacked and used to inflict harm. If people had access to personal drones, they could potentially send hazardous materials in packages to individuals and businesses. But couldn't they do that now? Certainly. Every once in a while we hear a story of someone sending this kind of package through the U.S. Postal Service or UPS though these packages carry a return address, tracking information, and other safety guards that deter crime and help authorities chase down culprits. With drones, individuals could theoretically bypass these checks.
Imagine this headline: "Amazon Prime Air drones under siege." This could be a reality. Drones could be hacked out of the sky, unless of course Amazon finds a way to equip them with their own safety devices or to shut them down remotely should they veer off their intended path. Drone hijacking is a real concern, as is the theft of the packages they carry.
With the weather growing ever more complicated, unpredictable, and severe, there is the question of how this technology would handle heavy rain, sleet, snow, and high winds. These conditions ground flights on a regular basis, causing delays and congestion at the nation's airports. They could also ground drones, and if so, we would need contingency plans to manage the deliveries and back-up of packages.
We know technology isn't perfect. Our mobile devices get overloaded, confused, and shut down unexpectedly from time to time. There must be significant testing done on what the drone would do if it breaks down in the midst of its mission, and what would happen to the packages in tow.
International shipping and customs
Right now even Amazon is skirting this issue. The financial and safety concerns boggle the mind. How would we handle tariffs, banned substances, sanctions, international safety concerns, and potential acts of terrorism?
The current commercial technology makes this discussion a moot point. The first generation of drones of Amazon Prime Air can only fly about 10 miles. Certainly the military's drones can travel great distances and many of our current consumer technologies started as military technologies. Computers were almost exclusively pioneered through military funding in the early decades of their development. Now we have a generation of digital natives who have never known a world without personal computers. Drone technology could follow the same trajectory and we must be prepared to manage these concerns as the technology advances.
The challenges and concerns about commercial and individual use of drones will face intense debate in the coming months and years. Bezos has publicly thrown down the gauntlet to regulators, the business world, and to society. "This will happen," he says emphatically.
There is a great deal of innovation, testing, and experimentation that must be done before even a small trial takes root. Though if history is any indication, new technological breakthroughs are always first met with intense skepticism. Consider the personal computer, online banking, and mobile wallet applications, and even social media. Now we take all of those innovations for granted in our daily lives. Perhaps someday we'll look up into the sky, see the drones circling, and barely bat an eye at their existence. That's the vision dancing in Mr. Bezos's head.
Fool contributor Christa Avampato has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.