On 1 December 2013, Americans watched a segment on the current affairs programme 60 Minutes about Amazon’s plans to deliver packages by drone in just “four or five years.” Well, it’s officially been five years. And Amazon’s failure to make drone delivery a reality is a great reminder that PR promises from big tech companies are often not worth very much. And frankly, it’s also an opportunity to be thankful that Amazon isn’t yet buzzing drones over our heads like it owns the skies.
The Associated Press has a new report out this week that serves as a rare follow-up to the promises so often made by tech companies about the future. A lot of different tech-focused enterprises get away with saying that something is just two years away, or three years away, or five years away, and few news organisations bother to ask what happened after the hour glass has expired. But it’s important to be reminded of things like that softball interview with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos by then-host Charlie Rose back in 2013, which didn’t deliver any valuable information and only served as a glowing advertisement for Amazon.
A lot has actually changed about the world since 2013. For one, the reporter who covered this thinly-veiled ad, Charlie Rose, got fired after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct. There’s also the global rise of fascism, which has the potential to really put a damper on society’s progress since 2013, to say the least. But when it comes to Amazon’s efforts, there isn’t a whole lot that’s changed. The company is still working on world domination of retail at the expense of workers’ rights, and we’re still buying steady streams of shit because Amazon usually gives us the best price and delivers quickly.
Amazon’s drone-powered Prime Air was touted as a “secret R&D” project that was going to revolutionise commerce in the United States. And the entire exchange between Bezos and Rose, as it’s been transcribed on the 60 Minutes website, is pretty nauseating with the benefit of hindsight:
But during our visit to Amazon’s campus in Seattle, Bezos kept telling us that he did have a big surprise, something he wanted to unveil for the first time...
Jeff Bezos: Let me show you something.
Charlie Rose: Oh, man...Oh, my God!
Jeff Bezos: This...
Charlie Rose: This is?
Jeff Bezos:...is...these are octocopters.
Charlie Rose: Yeah?
Jeff Bezos: These are effectively drones but there’s no reason that they can’t be used as delivery vehicles. Take a look up here so I can show you how it works.
Charlie Rose: All right. We’re talking about delivery here?
Jeff Bezos: We’re talking about delivery. There’s an item going into the vehicle. I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not.
Charlie Rose: Wow!
Jeff Bezos: This is early. This is still...years away. It drops the package.
Charlie Rose: And there’s the package.
Jeff Bezos: You come and get your package. And we can do half hour delivery.
Charlie Rose: Half hour delivery?
Jeff Bezos: Half hour delivery/and we can carry objects, we think, up to five pounds, which covers 86 percent of the items that we deliver.
Charlie Rose: And what is the range between the fulfilment centre and where you can do this within...
Jeff Bezos: These...this...this...these gener...
Charlie Rose: 30 minutes?
Needless to say, we don’t have Amazon drone delivery just yet. And all the TV appearance really did was provide some filler for viewers on a Sunday night. Not to mention racking up over 16 million views on YouTube, which is definitely a win in the public relations sense.
Amazon did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, though we’re not going to hold our breath on this one. Tech companies and the press have developed a more combative relationship since 2013 as more and more reporters realised that they’re not helping their audiences when they act as an extension of a company’s PR team.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, especially when it comes to tech that has the potential to help humanity. But this 60 Minutes segment about Amazon’s vaporware delivery drones never should have seen the light of day. Drone delivery is certainly a technological possibility today just as it was in 2013, but just like so many other billionaire-led pipe dreams (anyone remember the Hyperloop?), the hurdles are more political than technological. As the Associated Press notes, federal rules that would allow drones to be flown outside of an operator’s line of sight are probably at least 10 years away.
There is a long list of FAA rules governing drone flights. They generally can’t fly higher than 400 feet, over many federal facilities, or within five miles of an airport. Night flights are forbidden. For the delivery business, the most biggest holdup is that the machines must remain within sight of the operator at all times.
Do we want to live in a world where drones are constantly buzzing overhead so that we can get our toilet roll delivered a little faster? Maybe some people do. And maybe those who reject this version of the future could rightly be called Luddites. But as it becomes increasingly clear that many of the technologies from our generation have done very little to actually improve our lives, we definitely have a right to be sceptical. [Associated Press]