After Amazon's Jeff Bezos announced that his company wanted to deliver packages with small unmanned aerial vehicles, many people have questioned the viability and wisdom of the idea.
Yesterday, we got one optimistic perspective from Andreas Raptopoulos, an entrepreneur who founded Matternet, which is developing drone-delivery technology.
But there are many other ways to answer the questions that I posed to Raptopoulos. So, today, we bring you an interview with the University of Washington's Ryan Calo, who has become a leading authority on the ethical and policy implications of emerging technologies. Specifically, he's focused on the problems at the nexus of drones and privacy in recent months.
To offer the most intriguing parallels, I tried to keep my questions to Calo as similar to the ones as I posed to Raptopoulos as possible.
What rationale do companies like Amazon and Matternet give for creating drone-delivery networks?
Some people are saying Mr. Bezos made this announcement with no intention to carry through. I disagree. I think companies like Amazon and Matternet like drone delivery for a few reasons. The trend is toward immediate consumer gratification. We are actually behind China, for instance, where I understand hundreds of delivery services translate into fast, low-cost delivery in urban environments. A second, underappreciated reason Amazon might incorporate drones into their business model is to attract talent and investment. There is no denying that innovation is a currency in the tech world today.
Is there actually an efficiency bonus? (Or can one be imagined with some sort of system in the future?)
Today, drone delivery would not be efficient. Even if operated by a human being, drones cannot travel far with a payload. Amazon and Matternet are banking on gains in performance and lower costs over time.
Given your research, how close are we to this kind of future? How quickly could the Amazon Prime AIR future happen?
I am a law professor, not an engineer. But I do talk to roboticists quite a bit. There is a range, but many believe we could see what Mr. Bezos described within four years. Note that the first DARPA Grand Challenge involving driverless cars was in 2004. No team completed the challenge that year. Fully autonomous cars came within a half-decade, and are now within a couple of years of being commercialized (if you believe the statements of multiple car-markers).
What are the major challenges?
I see three categories of challenges. The first category, as we've alluded to, is technical. For drone delivery to work, you would need better energy sources, better software, and likely improvements in physical design. But note that companies and universities are working on these problems, as are thousands of hobbyists (ask Chris Anderson of DIY Drones).