Roy Exum: Are Drones Coming Here?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

As I watched “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, it didn’t take long for my imagination to kick in. Jeff Bezos and his giant company Amazon was featured during one of the news show’s ever-delicious segments and CBS commentator Charlie Rose made it fascinating to watch. But Bezos, who came across as a fun-loving guy, had promised Charlie a surprise announcement and, towards the end, Charlie yelped “Oh my God!” when he saw what the surprise was before we at-home viewers did.

Quite simply, our Amazon fulfillment center will soon have a huge fleet of drones. Can you imagine a bunch of little “octocopters” flying all around Chattanooga? I mean hundreds of them, filling the skies like a flock of Sandhill cranes, dropping off packages within 30 minutes of the time they were actually ordered. Bezos said within three or four years it is possible and – what’s more – I believe the guy.

An octocopter is a platform that has eight, helicopter-like rotors. Beneath the drone are four arms that cling to a bright yellow box that will carry an item up to five pounds inside. And once the drone is programmed using GPS coordinates, the drone gently lands outside a customer’s house, drops the box the last inch or two to the ground, and then flies back to the fulfillment center for the next order.

CBS showed footage of a drone in action and, as Bezos explained that 86 percent of what Amazon now ships weighs less than five pounds, he said it was just a matter of time before he could leave an order on somebody’s front porch. “I know this looks like science fiction,” the Amazon chief giggled before adding, “It’s not.”

Bezos cautioned the project is still very much in the research-and-development stage but that his wizards believe the current drones Amazon is using can easily deliver within a 10-mile radius of a fulfillment center, and that is as birds fly. “In urban areas, you could actually cover very significant portions of the population. And so, it won’t work for everything; you know, we’re not gonna’ deliver kayaks or table saws this way. These are electric motors, so this is all electric; it’s very green, it’s better than driving trucks around.”

Bezos explained the drones will be autonomous; instead of a guy sitting in front of a monitor skillfully driving the drone, the machine itself will be programmed with precise GPS coordinates. Once his team of engineers makes sure the drone won’t land on somebody’s head, Bezos’s philosophy – as he illustrated at several times in the interview, is “Why not?”

Charlie pressed him for a time line, asking when we might actually see the drones swarm out of a fulfillment center like a determined squadron of bees. “I’m an optimist, Charlie. I know it can’t be before 2015, because that’s the earliest we could get the rules from the FAA. My guess is that’s probably a little optimistic. But could it be, you know, four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

Has your imagination kicked in yet? You are out of ink for your printer. We all know for every printer there is a different cartridge. You merely go to an Amazon page, fill out the order with your credit card and – presto – 30 minutes later you hear the drone at the front door. Your printer ink is in the waterproof box and you are back in business.

At the start of the show, Rose said Amazon now has 225 million customers on file. And he explained that yesterday – already called Cyber Monday – the 96 Amazon fulfillment centers, the newest buildings bigger than 80 football fields, would process over 300 different orders every second of every minute of every hour in the day.

In Seattle and, more recently, Los Angeles “Amazon Fresh” is making same-day deliveries of food and the biggest part of the giant companies is its Web Services division, where a “cloud” serves many large companies, ranging from NetFlix and the clandestine CIA. Charlie jumped at that, asking, “Does that present any conflict for you, the fact that you provide the cloud that the CIA uses for its data?”

Bezos shook his head as he calmly answered, “We’re building what’s called a private cloud for them, Charlie, because they don’t want to be on the public cloud.” But what he didn’t say was that Amazon can handle a very large part of America’s Internet needs with ease, just as it can send a sea of drones from its Chattanooga and Cleveland fulfillment centers.

This isn’t science fiction, as Bezos said. “It’s not,” he promised and if I were 20 again and in college, I’d go into drone management because as famed football coach George Allen said long ago, “The future is now.”

Drones carrying small packages may be in Chattanooga within a few years
Drones carrying small packages may be in Chattanooga within a few years
- Photo2 by 60 Minutes

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