Google Wing: To Drone or Not To Drone

So in recent months I’ve been following all the hype around delivering parcels via autonomous drones. Firstly Amazon announced their interest in delivering parcels by drone in what it blithely dubs its Amazon Air service and now Google is keen to get in on the act with Google Wing. Whilst as a futurist I look on these developments with the same starry eyed longing that I normally reserve for hover cars and jet packs I do have one over-riding thought that keeps impinging on my general euphoria…”ARE THEY MAD!!!”.

Now don’t get me wrong, as a star wars fan the idea of hundreds of hovering autonomous droids rushing around doing our bidding does get me a little over-excited but I have a few minor concerns regarding the various services.

1 – Security – The Amazon vehicle lands to deliver it’s package to your doorstep. Now I don’t know whether or not they’re going to pioneer this service in the Bronx but if they are I’m assuming that they’re going to arm it with the same time of weaponry that the latest versions of the US Army Predator drones boast because that’s the only way it will get in and out of one of those neighborhoods with its little silicon brain intact and all its propellers still attached. Theft or damage to these drones has to be a real concern. Google Wing avoids this to some degree by not actually landing and they seem to be promoting its use in remote rural areas if the tests are anything to go by. However, given that it looks as if it flies at a height that’s well within rifle range theft should be a very real concern.

2 – Safety – Having an autonomous vehicle landing on my doorstep or dropping a package from height does concern me a little. Is Mittens the cat going to find herself with an interesting new hair style courtesy of Amazon drone propellers or is my next door neighbors four year old going to be found bludgeoned unconscious by falling tins of cat food…actually strike that example…that might be an excellent reason to have the service.

3 – Air Traffic – Anyone who has ever done much flying around any of our big cities knows how crowded our airspace already is. Should we be worried about thousands of extra delivery drone flights suddenly being introduced into this airspace? Given Amazon’s open letter to the FAA it would seem that they’re not particularly concerned but I’m not sure that I share their optimism.

4 – Malfunction – I lived in the Netherlands for a number of years. The Dutch like their windows and our house was no exception having large windows at both the front and rear of the house. One afternoon whilst trying to persuade my then 4 year old daughter that vases dropped from a great height really *don’t* make a great sound I was distracted by a loud noise of something hitting our window. As it turned out a pigeon had decided to end it all by flying at great speed into our front room window. Whilst saddened by the hapless animal’s untimely demise I couldn’t help but be entertained by the fact that it had left an almost perfect cartoon impression of a bird splatted on the glass. I doubt I would have had the same reaction if a drone had hit my window. Worse still, imagine a drone having a fault at height and several pounds of jagged metal and plastic dropping out of the sky at terminal velocity into a busy shopping plaza.

5 – Cost – OK, and here’s my biggie, there is no way that delivering packages by drone can possibly be cost effective. Even if you ignore the cost of the fuel, delivering a single package to an address by drone would require an entire department of support staff to keep the service running.

So…what should we make of this all? Well if I was being cynical (I know, I know) I would suggest that it’s a crazy idea on the part of Amazon in the first incidence to grab some publicity, and not to disappoint the analysts or its shareholders, Google has jumped on this rather unlikely bandwagon. To be fair to Google they do say that this isn’t a service that will be ready in the near future. I suspect when they start to try and address some of the above issues they may find that the idea is close to untenable with current technology. Still I for one still hope to hear the cheery beep, beep of my hover delivery droid one day so I shall keep a close eye on these projects. Maybe in 30 years or so an Amazon drone will deliver my rejuvenation pills to me.