Drone by Mike Miley on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Share-alike license.

What Amazon gets about reframing

Many quickly dismissed Amazon’s drone announcement in late 2013 as a publicity stunt. It coincided with the busiest online shopping day of the year, and redirected much of the negative media attention the company was dealing with. Plus, it just seemed weird.

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But transformative innovation comes from things that seem weird to begin with. Last year, I spoke with a global logistics firm about their innovation efforts:

“We’re really interested in vertical logistics,” they explained.

“Oh, like medical, or military, or energy logistics?” I asked.

“No,” they replied resignedly. “Vertical. You know. Up and down.”

The logistics industry has had a few big innovations in the last half-century:

  • The standardization of shipping containers revolutionized logistics, making shipments multimodal, and allowing them to move quickly from boat, to storage, to train, to truck. Standardization isn’t just about the dimensions of the container, but also its labelling, locking mechanism, and lift points.
  • The reliance on right turns dramatically reduces the time it takes to deliver things, particularly in urban areas. By avoiding left turns—and the resulting wait during periods of congestion—whenever possible, mapping tools reduce the time it takes to complete a route. UPS saved 10M gallons of gas in 10 years with this approach.

Is drone delivery another such innovation? Or just a publicity stunt?

Consider that today, the world’s population is moving quickly towards cities. Combine the crush of available housing with population growth, energy concerns, and more, and the future of cities is dense, energy-effiicent, high-rise buildings. In such buildings, the problem isn’t standardization, or right turns. It’s vertical logistics. Delivery personnel spend hours navigating an elevator, or dealing with crowded mailrooms, lost packages, and theft.

Now consider airborne cars. It turns out that the problem with such vehicles isn’t propulsion—it’s piloting. Brad Feld has a guest post that makes an excellent case for electric, autonomous, and even airborne vehicles in the near future. If our streets are lined with self-driving cars (which, incidentally, the liquor lobby will gladly endorse) then it’s not such a far stretch from drone drivers to airborne delivery.

Amazon’s long-term goal of drone delivery might seem audacious. But if we dial back the claims a bit, it’s easy to imagine an autonomous delivery truck driving to the curb, opening its roof, and drones carrying packages to the neighborhood’s front doors, or even properly-designed boxes on balconies, where they’re safe from theft and weather.

That’s how disruption happens. Something that makes no sense under current rules, suddenly becomes sensible when the rules change.

And for getting all the way down here, have a recent Netflix video lampooning Amazon’s drones, and its aspirations in the streaming video industry.

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