Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos staged a technology demonstration over the weekend, aiming to show how quickly a half-baked idea with several years of obstacles ahead of it could garner fawning attention from the news media. Answer: about two nanoseconds. The idea is for the delivery of Amazon orders by little unmanned copters, or drones. Bezos calls it "Amazon Prime Air. " The judges are still conferring, but Bezos is expected to have lowered the previous record, set by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors in August with his proposal for a "hyperloop" rapid transit system between Northern and Southern California. Hyperloop enthralled techno-fans and not a few credible transportation experts before fading out of public consciousness, a few days after flaring into press.
Among the first hype-busters to respond was David Talbot at MIT Technology Review, who observed that although the technology exists, the cost is prohibitive for a commercial enterprise with reasonable alternatives. Among the places where drone deliveries have been tested is Haiti, where conditions on the ground make alternatives scarce. Amazon would have to charge up to $200 for a five-pound package, Talbot observed, making the deal "a niche, high-cost service for high-value items."
My colleague W.J. Hennigan pointed out the "safety and privacy concerns about drones with high-powered cameras flying over populated areas. Imagine a cargo-carrying drone dropping out of the sky or crashing through a window."
Self-defined tech skeptic Bob Sullivan questioned Bezos' assertion that drones are greener than trucks. Drones "sound like one-package-per-trip gadgets to me.... Back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth in those 10-mile radius areas? Is that really greener than a truck carrying 500 packages? We’ll see."
Politico covered the regulatory landscape, noting that the tech skeptics at the FAA would have to be heard from. Think of how long it's taken them to approve Kindle and iPad use on flights. How long will it take them to approve unmanned aircraft skittering on urban flight paths?
What's really remarkable about Bezos' venture into tech promotion is the eagerness with which "60 Minutes" and other news organizations (including The Times) took him at his own level of self-confidence. Musk enjoyed the same liberty. No one should begrudge them their game of spinning fantasies in the air. If you like to entertain yourself with visions of the high-tech future, have fun. But no one should mistake these ideas at this point for anything but fantasies.