March 20, 2015

FAA gives Amazon permission to test publicity stunt


Jeff shows his new toy off to his friend. (Both this and this post's featured image are screen shots from CBS.)

Jeff shows his new toy off to his friend. (Both this and this post’s featured image are screen shots from CBS.)

Yesterday, the FAA gave Amazon permission to test delivery drones that “that the company will use for research and development and crew training.” Amazon drones aren’t imminent, however—no, that isn’t a Predator whizzing overhead to drop a jug of Tuscan milk at your neighbor’s door—the company still has a long, long way to go until its dream of a fleet of drones is realized, thank god. And the drones won’t be allowed to reach an altitude of over 400 feet or fly at night. According to The New York Times:

In a sign of how far Amazon has to go before its vision for its drone-delivery service is realized, the company’s drones for now will have to be operated by a pilot with a certificate to fly a private manned aircraft. Amazon has envisioned its drone-delivery service, which it calls Amazon Prime Air, to be autonomous, consisting of buzzing fleets of miniature helicopters soaring far beyond the view of Amazon warehouses. …

Still, even getting permission to test drones outdoors with a pilot counts as progress for Amazon, which has been lobbying the F.A.A. for approval to do so for months. The company has previously been forced to test drones indoors near its headquarters in Seattle. It has also started outdoor tests outside the United States and has warned federal regulators that jobs and investment dollars will leave the country if they do not relax their current drone restrictions.

There’s something deeply hilarious about both the FAA’s restrictions and Amazon’s “warnings.” The FAA seems to be treating Amazon’s drones as if they were its teenage daughters—you can take them out, as long as you have them back before dark.  And Amazon’s threat of outsourcing valuable drone jobs is, well, a laugh, especially considering Amazon runs Mechanical Turk, which is the king of both outsourcing “bullshit jobs” to foreign countries, which lack unions and wage laws, and what Jacob Silverman refers to as the “crowdsourcing scam.

Amazon will test its drones loyalty and flightworthiness somewhere in rural Washington state, presumably above Modest Mouse‘s practice space. Still, the fact that Amazon is testing drones in the United States is surprising, insofar as it’s surprising that the company is testing them at all. Amazon’s “drone delivery” plan was widely received as nothing more than a cynical publicity stunt when it was first announced in December of 2013. As the Guardian‘s James Ball wrote in 2013, the announcement was about timing, nothing more: 

What Jeff Bezos announced amounted, essentially, to an aspiration to change how his company delivers products, in about five years time, if technology advances and regulation falls his way. If his TV appearance hadn’t included the magic word “drones”, Bezos’s vague aspirations to change an aspect of his company’s logistics probably wouldn’t have made waves. Lucky for him, he did – winning his company positive publicity just ahead of what is usually the biggest online shopping day of the year, the dreadfully named Cyber Monday.

Earlier in the piece, Ball persuasively lays out the case against the viability of drone delivery:

The practical issues are manifold: the technology to make the drones operational in any sense is not yet in place. It’s all well and good for the unmanned vehicles to fly to a particular GPS site, but how does it then find the package’s intended recipient? How is the transfer of the package enacted? What stops someone else stealing the package along the way? And what happens when next door’s kid decides to shoot the drone with his BB rifle?

None of that starts to come close to the legal minefield using drones in this way entails…. Managing the skies with this much low-level traffic is a problem people are nowhere near solving. Opening up crowded urban areas full of terror targets to large numbers of flying platforms is always going to be packed with conflicting interests and difficulties. And all this has come before the first lawsuit caused after someone is injured by a faulty drone (or that one your neighbour shot), crashing down to earth.

So why make the announcement? Writing in 2013, Ball argued that Bezos and co. wanted to get a free infomercial from 60 Minutes during the valuable Christmas shopping season (check) and to distract the public from the fact that Amazon mistreats most of its human workers (check) and barely pays taxes in most of the countries it operates in (check).

At the time, pieces like Ball’s made me think that this was all just a pipe dream. So why is Amazon going through with it now? Amazon is certainly interested in replacing its mistreated human workers with unfeeling automatons. Whether in warehouses or delivery trucks, human beings are the most expensive cost for any business, and Amazon has never seemed to be particularly interested in making long-term commitments to the health and safety of its human workers—at the very least, it’s been particularly interested in turning its warehouses workers into something approaching human drones. Replacing humans—even if those humans theoretically make up the company’s customer base—with robots solves a number of problems: it makes the company more efficient and more profitable. And, hey, drones are really cool, which is why they’re so popular with the single-white-wrap-around-shades-and-khaki-shorts set (also known as the “you-should-see-my-blu-ray-collection set” and the “check-out-my-new-vape-pen set”).

So what are we to make of this announcement? Probably nothing, considering the incredible safety risks at play, given Amazon’s sales volume—living in New York City is dangerous enough and that’s without the risk of a drone crashing into my 170 square foot apartment. Or maybe not. What this seems to show is that Amazon, like most of Silicon Valley, has absolutely no interest in the low- (or even middle-) wage workers who have helped make its insane growth possible. Its warehouse workers and contracted delivery men (UPS and now USPS) are overworked, often in conditions that could be described as, at best, trying. Rather than make the lives of those people better or more comfortable or more stable, Amazon has consistently displayed a commitment to making the work that they do irrelevant, for no other reason than that it’s cheaper, and therefore more appealing to investors. For Amazon, the American worker has always been a means to an end. Bring on C-3PO.

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.