Delivery Drones Are Amazon's Google Glass

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
December 3, 2013

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was already flying high on 60 Minutes, wowing Charlie Rose with his company’s formidable logistics and fulfillment system, when the manic-eyed tech exec busted out a little something extra: aeronautic robots.

That’s right. As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Amazon claims to be testing (in what correspondent Charlie Rose helpfully called the company’s “secret lab”) the use of drones (actually, octocopters) as its next-wave delivery mechanism. Click up your order, and these things will fly it to you, straight from the warehouse, in half an hour.

There are, to put it mildly, some caveats. It’s “years away,” Bezos conceded. It will only work for (physically) small orders, weighing less than five pounds — not “kayaks,” as he said. Obviously not everybody lives within 30-minute octocopter flight of an Amazon fulfillment center. And of course the Federal Aviation Administration has not issued rules on commercial drone use, so at the moment, the scheme isn’t actually legal.

But still! “I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not,” said Batman — whoops, I mean Bezos. Perhaps. At the moment the fact that deliverybots looks like science fiction is exactly what matters. It’s why Amazon Drones, however fanciful or distant, works.

The official demo video makes no particular effort to be convincing: A whisper-quiet machine with an Amazon Prime Air logo travels in peaceful solitude from a pristine warehouse, across a lush field against a brilliant sky, to a fancy house in the middle of nowhere, where it discretely deposits its cargo.

For all the evidence of plausibility it offered, the video could just as easily have depicted the purchase being teleported into the arms of Rosie the Robot. But the point isn’t really to persuade, it’s to provoke: Amazanobots have clearly captured our collective short-term imagination, with opinions about and reactions to the general idea of on Amazon drone fleet flooding the Internet — and on Cyber Monday, no less!

Is this a thrilling vision of a hyper-convenient future? Or do you prefer to extrapolate a bleak scenario involving machine-filled skies fulfilling some perverse parody of a consumer society’s Must Have Now demands? Either way, like the maestro of a creative writing seminar serving up a story prompt, Bezos has given you irresistible fodder.

It’s the same strategy employed by Google, when it teased its Google Glass project with a gee-whiz YouTube video titled “One day…” The release of the actual product was years away, and none of the features had been cemented, but it got people talking about Google, and associating the company with futuristic technology and the avant-garde.

Delivery drones are Amazon’s Google Glass. Make no mistake: Bezos is by all accounts a radically practical and rigorous businessman, presiding over a massive enterprise that absolutely depends on ruthless efficiency and razor-thin margins. But he is also a genius of imagination as promotional tactic — an enthusiastic showman who knows how to go Barnum in the tech context better than any CEO in the post-Jobs era.

Whether Amazon Prime drones will ever deliver is a matter of speculation, as well as regulation. But when Bezos sets out to tell a fantastic story about a possible-ish Amazon future, he delivers every single time. He’s a living version of serialized business drama. I can’t wait for the next thrilling installment.