Amazon Is Dead Serious About Delivering Your Goodies by Drone
When Bezos unveiled the octocopters to Charlie Rose four years ago, it seemed like a publicity stunt. It wasn’t.
By Steven Levy
Mar 31 2017
Almost four years ago, in a puffy 60 Minutes piece about Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos gave us a peek at a secret project: autonomous “octocopters,” also known as giant drones. The flying devices, Bezos assured us, would cut out UPS and FedEx to deliver packages to Amazon’s customers. At the time, skeptics dismissed it as a publicity stunt and doubted that the company would ever pursue the seemingly nutty scheme.
Whoops. Amazon Prime Air, as it’s called, is real. On March 20th in Palm Springs, CA, I saw the first public test flight in the US at a private Amazon emerging tech conference called MARS.
Amazon is definitely serious about delivering its goods by an autonomous air force. But are those drones really going to be a significant part of the company’s ever-growing delivery system? Spending some time with a couple of the key Amazon Prime Air team members last week, I got some indications that the company is indeed gearing up for a massive effort to fill the skies with its vehicles. It’s still very much in the test stage, but the progress Amazon has made jibes with the realization that drones are very much in our future.
“Oh, man…oh my god!” Charlie Rose was stunned. Though CBS had been working on a big Amazon story for months, it wasn’t until taping had begun that Bezos revealed he had something exclusive and very special to show off. Even so, Rose’s mind was blown at the sight of a drone the size of a pit bull. The producer of the 60 Minutes piece thought the octocopters looked like giant tarantulas, or at least like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Clearly those dudes were not spending their weekends flying DJIs in their backyards.
Indeed, the drones didn’t look drastically different than some of the high-end models in the marketplace. What was different was the role they were designed to play. Bezos explained that they were custom built to deliver packages, ideally within 30 minutes of Amazon customers hitting the buy button. Cautioning that the project was in a very early stage, Bezos speculated it that might take four or five years to get things right and win the proper government approvals. He professed optimism. “It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun,” he said.
But much of the tech press charged that it was a publicity stunt. Cynics noted that the 60 Minutes piece might have been a way to deflect negative coverage directed at Amazon and at Bezos in particular—most notably, a critical book by Brad Stone, whose tales of a quasi-Dickensian workplace so displeased the company that Bezos’ wife posted a negative review. The show also aired on the eve of Cyber Monday, the buying orgy that is one of Amazon’s biggest sales days.
Critics claimed that by introducing a service Bezos himself admitted would not be launched for years, CBS had been pawned. It was all a giant free Amazon ad! It was unprecedented for Amazon to pre-announce a product or service. But the company actually was revealing very little to its competitors.
Because, after all, those drones were unlikely to ever show up.