Plan for Robotification of Everything Proceeding Apace

In the late 19th century, major American cities began installing networks of underground pneumatic tubes between post offices, enabling them to whisk hundreds of letters back and forth at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, with the satisfying thurp sound as an added bonus. Most of the systems were dismantled in the 1920s, but somehow New York's managed to stay in use until the 50's (here's a description of this odd bit of postal history).

Sadly, the dream of universal pneumatic tube delivery to the home was never achieved. But in a 14-minute ad for Amazon that was cleverly staged as a report on 60 Minutes ("If you can do this with all these products, what else can you do?" gushed Charlie Rose on the floor of a fulfilment center. "You guys can organize the world!"), the company revealed the future of package delivery: drones.

It isn't as though they're the first ones to have thought of this; people have been making jokes about things like pizza-delivery drones for a few years now. But as the world's biggest internet retailer, Amazon might be be able to make it happen. Before we talk about whether this is serious and what the problems might be, here's their little promotional video:

Bezos did say it was years away from actual implementation (Rose, showing his keen journalistic skills, saw the drones and said, "Wow"). There are some real technical issues, at least given current drone technology. The most basic may be fuel: the kind of small, relatively inexpensive drone we're talking about can't hold much, so it can't lift a lot of weight or go all that far (it wouldn't be cost-effective to use a Global Hawk with a 130-foot wingspan to deliver your toothpaste). Make the drones bigger to carry more and you could have some accidents when thousands of them are zipping around neighborhoods. And I know that if I was a young rapscallion and not the responsible adult, stealing an Amazon drone when it comes in for a landing would seem like an extremely cool thing to do.

There would also be a security concern with regard to your package—the drone's GPS can get it all the way to your driveway or lawn, but it can't open your screen door and place it inside the way your friendly UPS man does. So you might not want those diamond earings delivered via the air.

Having said all that, this is one of those technological/commercial developments that makes you say, "Well of course they're going to do that." It's just a question of getting the cost low enough to make it cheaper to fly that package to you than to send it through the mail; if it isn't right now, eventually it will be. Governments are finding new uses for drones all the time, and once big business wants to expand their use, chances are the FAA will open up regulations to accomodate them in ways they wouldn't if it were just a bunch of hobbyists who wanted permission to fill the skies with quadrotors and octocopters.

So if you were a clever inventor, this would be a great time to start working on a window ledge-secured drone delivery landing pad system. Patent that bad boy, and in five years Amazon will buy you out so it can offer them for 50 percent off with every Amazon Prime membership.

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