Where are the delivery drones?

Jeff Bezos said Amazon drones would bring toothpaste and cat food to American homes in four to five years. That was almost nine years ago. Wow!

This week, Amazon said it plans to begin shipping its first drones in the U.S. in 2022, perhaps in a California town.

Today’s newsletter addresses two questions: What is taking so long to make drone submissions? And are they better than other ways to bring goods out of our doors?

Corollary: In the near future, drone shipments will be available in a limited number of locations for a limited number of products under certain conditions. But due to technical and financial constraints, drones are unlikely to be the future of package delivery on a massive scale.

Shipment of drones is a significant improvement for some tasks, such as bringing medicines to people in remote areas. But that’s less ambition than the big drone dream presented to Bezos and others in public.

Why are drones so difficult?

Small planes that operate without human control face two significant obstacles: it is a complex technology, and governments have demanded a lot of bureaucracy, often for good reasons. (Regulatory issues have largely been addressed in the U.S.).

Dan Patt, an experienced drone engineer and a senior member of the Hudson Institute research team, said he and I could do our delivery drone in a garage for a week for less than $ 5,000. The basics are not that difficult.

But the real world is infinitely complex and drones can’t handle it. At high speeds, drones must accurately “see” and navigate around buildings, power lines, trees, other aircraft, and people before they land on the ground or send packages from a height. GPS may stop for a few seconds and the drone may crash. There is little room for error.

“It’s very easy to fix the first part of the problem,” Patt said. “It is very difficult to solve the whole problem so that the delivery of the drones is completely robust.”

The usual approach for technologists is to think smaller, which is to limit drones to relatively uncomplicated settings. The zip line, which focused on the use of drones, was difficult to drive in relatively large areas of Rwanda and Ghana to deliver blood and medical supplies to health centers. A typical suburb or city is more complex, and vehicle shipping is a better alternative. (In Lockeford, California, where Amazon plans to ship its first U.S. drones, thousands of people live in mostly deployed homes).

That’s still a tremendous achievement, and over time drones are becoming more and more capable of delivering to other types of settings.

An even more difficult issue, Patt said, is that most drone shipments may not make economic sense for the most part. It’s cheaper to fill one more package in a UPS delivery truck. But drones can’t carry that much. They can’t make many stops on a flight. People and vehicles must carry cat food and toothpaste to the place where the drones take off.

“I think small markets, small concepts, niche uses for the next 10 years,” Patt said. “It will not be scaled to replace everything.” Some people who work in drones are more optimistic than Patt, but we have seen a lack of similar optimism in other areas.

Too much promise and too little

The parallels between drones and driverless cars kept jumping at me. Drone technologists told me that, as with driverless cars, they misjudged the challenge and overestimated the potential of computer-driven vehicles.

Reliable drone deliveries and driverless cars are a good idea, but they may never be as widespread as technology once thought.

We continue to make the same mistakes with automated technology. For decades, technologists said that driverless cars, computers that reason like humans, and robotic factory workers would soon be ubiquitous and better. We want to believe them. And when there is no sight, despair arises.

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Brian X. ChenThe New York Times consumer technology columnist suggests ways to make our (undelivered) online shopping a little smoother on the planet.

  • Let go of immediate joy. If you do not need items immediately, it is best to choose the slowest delivery time. Delivering the next day or the same day means that package companies are more in favor of speed than efficiency: more aircraft flights and more miles driven by pollution.

  • Use less cardboard. There’s an option called Amazon Day Delivery that allows people to select a specific day of the week and combine multiple orders into a single option. The items are also packed in fewer boxes. In addition, for some items, Amazon offers a “frustration-free packaging” that removes some unnecessary packaging. Choosing one of these options will reduce the consumption of cardboard and plastic.

  • When practical, buy used. On many Amazon listings, you can buy a used product. For many items, from cast iron kitchens to screwdrivers, it makes a lot of sense to buy something lightly used before returning. You’re giving a product a second life and you’re saving a few bucks.

  • A former Google video producer has sued the company, saying it was fired after denouncing the influence of a religious sect at work. Cade Metz and Dai Wakabayashi unraveled a strange story of software, winemaking, and high consciousness.

  • Ransomware hacking within the world: Bloomberg News described the work of negotiators who deal with criminals who block organizations ’computer systems until they get paid. (Subscription may be required.)

  • A cryptography workplace melts into a crypto market crash. My colleagues Ryan Mac and David Yaffe-Bellany report on the head of a cryptocurrency company who told employees to leave their employees if they disagreed on issues such as women’s intelligence and gender identity.

The birds are rad. here’s one mocking the sound of car alarms, the police siren and mobile.

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