December 2, 2013

Amazon hopes to begin delivering packages via massive flying blender


The smile means it's sorry it diced your cat.

The smile means it’s sorry it diced your cat.

In a move that should surprise nobody in its impracticality, its ambition, or its hilariously sinister overtones, Amazon has announced plans to begin package delivery by drone.

Jeff Bezos, 2002-2013 world champion distiller of bookseller tear liquer and an all-around bummer of a guy, was given a moment to speak to 60 Minutes this past weekend. In the middle of a report on that company by Charlie Rose— interesting, if not as hard-hitting as recent journalism by the BBC and this weekend’s great piece in the Guardian—Bezos unveiled Amazon’s newest ambition.

The plan, illustrated in Amazon’s promotional video here, would be to have drones carry packages of five pounds or less directly from Amazon sweatshops to a customer’s doorstep. This brings to mind two immediate questions. First, how could this work? Second, is this pretty awesome?

The answer to the second question is a qualified yes. Yes, this is kind of awesome. It is awesome in precisely the way that the quantum computers and space travel being funded by Bezos are awesome. That is, they are fun developments—Bezos himself emphasized this point in his interview with Rose—with the unmistakable veneer of futurity. It’s an affect often lacking in more pedestrian big budget projects like, say, distributing mosquito netting or helping the poorest among us avoid starvation. Those qualifications, however: I would rather these developments were not being funded by a fortune created on the literally aching backs of a new subclass of precariously employed, remarkably mistreated manual laborers.

I’d like to see a remix of Amazon’s promotional video that shows the desperate lifestyle of the human being behind the pair of hands that loads the drone’s cargo pod, before it is whisked away for delivery to a comfortably middle class home.

As to how Amazon will enact their drone delivery: the answer, at least at first, would seem to be only sporadically and by skirting the law.

Anyone receiving drone delivery would clearly need to live with in a half hour’s drone flight of an Amazon sweatshop. The current range held out by Amazon is ten miles. And though Amazon is building more locations constantly, at the moment that rules out most of us, until Amazon buys the USPS in toto which, man, at this point I guess I would believe.

The FAA currently does not allow commercial drone  use of the sort being posited by Amazon. Drone hobbyists have much more leeway, at least for now. The FAA just laid down their framework for future rules around the devices this November.  NPR’ “All Tech Considered” recently discussed safety issues and legislation behind drone use here. On twitter Brian Stelter remarked that Amazon even shot their promotional video outside of U.S. airspace.

Certainly these drones will be no more dangerous than the delivery trucks already used by Amazon and everyone else—if those trucks flew at three hundred feet, were designed to eject their cargo at the press of a single button and, oh yes, were held aloft by spinning blades.

More than the whole terrifying-corporation-dropping-death-spy-death-drones-onto-my-patio thing (yes, ‘death’ is in the name twice and yes I live in Brooklyn so my patio is in fact built of rat carcasses) I worry about the folks who will be piloting these things. The last thing Amazon needs is a new class of employee to mistreat. What sort of impossible work rates would they set for these poor folks? Whether we love or hate the idea of death-spy-death-drones bringing us our morning supply of skivvies while the backwash blows open our robes, I think we can all agree that we’d prefer the pilot of that drone to be able to take the time to avoid murdering us with his scary robot.

A note: I’ve not, throughout this piece, made the comparison between these drones and those deployed by the U.S. military and CIA. My tone above is flippant, and I don’t find those latter types of drone funny in the slightest. Sorry.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.