Here in 30 minutes: meet Amazon’s new drone

Up in the air: Amazon’s prototype delivery drone can travel for 15 miles at up to 60mph © PA

Amazon has revealed its latest airborne delivery technology. Soon, it says, drones will be as commonplace as delivery trucks. Is the need for instant gratification hurting society?

Imagine the situation, says Jeremy Clarkson in a new promotional video by the gargantuan online retailer, Amazon. It’s your daughter Millie’s big football game, but your dog Stuart has chewed one of her boots. Not to worry — you can order a new pair and have it delivered to your house within half an hour by Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery service. ‘And balance is restored to the universe,’ Clarkson concludes, not without some sarcasm.

The video reveals, for the first time, technology which has been in development since Amazon first announced its plans to introduce a drone service exactly two years ago. The device is an ‘octocopter hybrid’, meaning it uses eight propellers to rise up from the ground, and wings and a ‘pusher motor’ to fly horizontally like a plane.

Amazon claims that the drones have built-in ‘detect and avoid’ sensors to prevent accidental collisions, and it hopes to make use of the mostly empty airspace between 200 and 400ft above the ground.

The benefits are clear: near-instant access to the company’s vast selection of products will be more convenient for customers’ busy lives. Meanwhile — although other companies, including Google, are investing in similar technology — Amazon will have a clear edge over its competitors. When you can choose, buy and receive your purchases in under half an hour without leaving your house, why would you order from anywhere else?

‘We like to pioneer, we like to explore, we like to go down dark alleys and see what’s on the other side,’ explained CEO Jeff Bezos two years ago.

But author Paul Roberts has warned that the instant gratification of new technologies is hurting society. It makes people impatient, less empathetic and encourages us to ‘remain in a state of permanent childhood’.

I want it now

Delaying gratification is what teaches us to be better people, argues Roberts. It allows us to think about how much we really want something, overcome challenges to get it, and therefore stay satisfied for longer. As companies get better at giving us what we want, we become increasingly self-absorbed. Amazon’s new drones could create all sorts of safety problems — but our desire for faster, more personalised services makes us blind to their effects.

Yet society cannot remain static, insist CEOs like Bezos. The quest for efficiency has been one of humanity’s most productive forces: it brought farming methods which freed us from the fields, and communication systems which helped us to share our knowledge. Amazon’s drones might even help the environment by reducing the number of delivery vans on the roads. Progress may be scary, but it drives humanity forwards; in the end it changes us for the better.

You Decide

  1. If Amazon Prime Air was released today, would you order something?
  2. Is new technology and innovation always a good thing?

Activities

  1. Drones are a fast-growing industry, with potential in military, agriculture and entertainment. Design and label a drone for your own imaginary company using the technology.
  2. Choose another technology which had a huge impact on society, such as railways, smartphones or printing presses. Research how it was viewed by contemporaries, and how it is viewed now. Present your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“Last century, governments shaped our world. Now, it is Google and Amazon.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this just a fantasy?
The are legal obstacles to overcome — in the USA, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has banned the use of personal drones beyond a pilot’s line of vision. However, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has been more receptive, and as suggested introducing ‘corridors’ of airspace. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is optimistic: ‘One day Prime Air deliveries will be as common as seeing a mail truck.’
Where else might I see drones in the future?
The potential is huge. Drones are already being used to capture difficult aerial photographs, and this could help conservationists monitor changes in wildlife and the environment. They could also be used in developing nations, to provide internet access or transport medical supplies to remote areas and disaster zones.

Word Watch

Jeremy Clarkson
The former Top Gear presenter is developing a new show with Amazon’s streaming service, Prime Instant Video. He was fired from the BBC after an ‘unprovoked attack’ on a producer.
Amazon
The online marketplace was launched 20 years ago, and has become one of the biggest companies in the world — but it rarely turns a profit. Instead, it reinvests its money into its own delivery system, which it believes represents the core of its business.
Drone
Also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. Drones have been used in the military for decades, but have only recently begun to take hold of commercial markets. Now, it is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries.
200 and 400ft
Amazon estimates that most buildings — outside of large cities — are under 200ft. More traditional aircraft occupy the airspace above 500ft, so Amazon’s plan leaves a large buffer between the two.
Google
Google has announced plans to launch a drone delivery service by 2017, known as ‘Project Wing’. The technology differs from Amazon’s by dropping the package at its destination without landing.

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