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Commentary: Do we really want delivery by drone?

by on December 07, 2013 10:49 AM

WASHINGTON — I’m sorry, but Jeff Bezos scares me. Maybe it’s an age thing where too much radical change has overloaded my comfort zone. Or perhaps it’s that I distrust unrestrained ambition.

The Amazon genius who has parlayed an online empire seemingly without bounds into a $25 billion personal fortune selling everything but the air we breathe is ready to now fill our skies with spider-looking objects to deliver what we have bought from him.

If Bezos has his way, by 2018 we will find these drones buzzing through our skies like a locust invasion, planting packages on our lawns or front porches. The object is to get things in your hands quicker to satisfy your need for instant gratification, which is another thing he seems to want to peddle.

The culture already operates at breakneck speed, so who needs more? There are some hitches for the man who would own the world — and sell it. The Federal Aviation Administration may predictably worry about whether further crowding the skies with these little buggers is safe or desirable — a boon or a scientific nightmare on a number of different levels. Increasingly Americans are being subjected to prying eyes from the sky and the electronic eavesdropping of the National Security Agency. The drone probably will be designed with one camera and civil libertarians are alarmed, as well they should be.

The FAA is only one agency that Bezos will have to deal with. There are all sorts of questions to be raised from others on the federal state and local levels including security agencies who might legitimately see the potential for illegal abuse. Dare I mention terrorism?

It also doesn’t take an economist to understand the possible impact on the job market already suffering from automation. The delivery man, like so many others, may just go the way of the passenger pigeon, replaced by an awkward looking robotic machine with propellers. The prototype is 36 inches wide with eight motors and a flying time of just 30 minutes and a max 5 pound payload (at least to start).

According to the Washington Post, which Bezos bought recently, 86 percent of the items shipped by Amazon are 5 pounds or under. Those who missed seeing the unveiling of this delivery gadget on the television standard “60 Minutes” the other evening can go online to Bezo’s newspaper (he personally owns it, not Amazon ) for a step-by-step illustration how this revolutionary delivery system will work. But Bezos has some practical problems, too.

He has to protect his flying porters from being hijacked or shot out of the sky by sportsmen who want to practice their duck hunting or clay pigeon skills or who are just plain annoyed by them and whip out one of their several hundred firearms. Watching and listening to the master peddler on national TV, I could imagine the slightly deranged scientist chortling in his lab as he schemed to change the globe’s culture. There isn’t anything that Amazon wasn’t ultimately going to be able to sell and deliver, one of Bezos minions told Charlie Rose.

Amazingly the billions of dollars of merchandise sold still haven’t produced a substantial profit if any for Amazon. Yet Bezos has become one of the wealthiest men in the world apparently from people betting on the come, as old crap shooters say. His $250 million outlay for the Post is peanuts for an institution whose worth would have topped $2 billion about 15 years ago before change all but killed it.

Will he be able to save the Post by completely revising its model? At least that’s what some optimists believe. With the whirlybirds he might at least cut home delivery costs.

Is the man a business genius or a strange creature from outer space who is secretly plotting to turn up side down civilization as we know it? Bezos told Rose that businesses come and go and that he only hopes that his doesn’t disappear until after this death (this said with a hearty but nervous laugh).

In the meantime, what he and others in this electronic wonderland already have done to the benefits we receive from social intercourse on a personal basis is scary. A wise man once said that just because we are capable of doing something doesn’t always mean we should do it. The unintended long range consequences may nullify what seemed like a good idea at the time.

Bezos and his drones have that possibility.

Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at
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