Amazon Prime Drones

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Managing Multiple Multiplexed PolySocial Drones: The Amazon Drone Dream

On 60 Minutes, a television news show, Jeff Bezos, CEO of, announced plans to have Amazon customers expect Amazon Prime Air drone home delivery of packages within 5 years. The scenario was painted as a shiny future where people could get their 5 pound packages in 30 minutes or less delivered to their door.

I'd like to pull this scenario apart and talk about why it has a long way to go, outside of the regulatory issues--and mostly why it's a terrible idea.

The Doors for Delivery

Let's start with those "doors." Bezos assumes that in this short-term 5 year future, everyone will have a place to live that would be able to accommodate a drone delivery. For the most part, at least where I live in Silicon Valley, there is a seemingly unending housing crunch, with the majority of housing for the middle and lower classes in the form of high density apartments or condos with limited to no personal outdoor space. While new structures are being built, they are more and more constrained and limited with space. The average apartment space has shrunk and will continue to do so, which limits the amount of what people will actually be able to accumulate and receive deliveries of in the first place. The population is still growing and the situation of high density housing will only increase, limiting locations for "direct-to-customer" drone deliveries. If we work backwards and go with the assumption that the 1% (Bezos himself) and others who will both value this service and have the "doors" for it, the next step to sort out is the traffic.

The Traffic of Packages

Without getting into the obvious inevitable issues of hacking, jacking etc. of the drones, we can still talk about the traffic of packages. How many customers will Amazon have in any given time for the Prime Air drone service? When one examines the contents of the current neighborhood shipping route delivery trucks, and breaks it into its package components (the packages that are their cargo) and attaches each one to a drone, that is what it will be like. Thousands of couriers are dependent upon regular delivery for their livelihoods. That didn't get any coverage, but will also be a part of this story. Couriers work hard.

A UPS driver, posted this in 2007 on about their driving load:

I usually average about 175 stops with 400 or so pieces... and 10 pickups with an average of 25 packages on the "training" route I'm still running a year later... but anyways the other day I made a comment to the FedEx driver, (ground) I believe if he would be interested in trading trucks for a day as I was hauling in a good sized load on my hand cart... he kinda snapped at me and told me he has 160 stops, 550 pieces and has to load his own truck at 5:30am and unload his pickups when he gets back...

Imagine some percentage of those packages as being 5 pounds or less. The numbers above were for one driver, working for one company, five years ago. There are more people, and more packages now, thus making the following a fairly conservative estimate. There will be at any given time 300+ drone packages flying through a neighborhood--per vendor (the equivalent of each truck). Furthermore, Amazon's drones are going to be part of a fleet of drones that includes UPS drones, FedEx drones, USPS drones, real estate drones, restaurant delivery drones, individual personal drones, government drones, police drones, etc. The sky is going to be littered with drones.

The Cult of the Individual

Amazon's Achilles' heel is that they think in terms of individuals. Individual transactions, individual users, individual drones. The corporation doesn't think about groups and group behavior more than as a data aggregate. It seems that Amazon's services successes are tied to time, code and the quantification of time combined with code. People's experiences and quality of life do not seem as high on their agenda as fast delivery and quantification of internal performance metrics. Amazon is here to sell, and to be the fastest and best at it.

As a company, Amazon cultivates a culture where individuals are rewarded. This is not an optimal basis for understanding a system that is going to be thrust upon large groups of people.

What Amazon Isn't Thinking About: Experience

The experience for people and animals in this scenario. How birds will get from A to B doing bird things. How insects will be able to swarm or not. What the shadows be like for humans on land with a sky thick with drones. The noise. What will the noise be like? Even if the drones fly high enough up to have noise not be a factor, eventually, they are going to have to land in the neighborhood 300+ times/vendor a day. Plus yanno, Sunday delivery.

PrimeAir, PolySocial Reality (PoSR) and Thing Theory

Applin and Fischer have worked on PolySocial Reality (PoSR) as a way of defining and modelling messaging relationships between humans/humans, human/machines, and machines/machines. The outcomes of PoSR can be both brittle and fragmented or unified and connected, depending upon synchronicity levels and connections. We require situational synchronisation and connection for cooperation, which is the successful outcome that humans need to survive.

PoSR examines what happens in a multiple, multiplexed, messaged world. Amazon drones and the system that they will need to operate within will have a high propensity for error, for missed messages, and thus a high likelihood for poor-to-no interaction with other drones from other vendors or owners. It's going to be a flat out mess.

Applin and Fischer suggest Thing Theory as a way for trusted agents to broker complex messaging with PoSR and we currently have a paper out for review that discusses how Thing agents can work with connected and autonomous vehicles.

Drones are just another addition to and instance of PoSR. They will need to be included in the system for communication to succeed and for cooperation to be achieved.

Subsuming the Commons

With this drone service, it appears that Amazon may be aiming to take over public airspace (a shared human resource) and exploit it for their commercial gains.

Amazon has already diverted many states of much needed sales tax that is used to maintain government services. Now that there are less resources to enforce laws within the commons and local governments are desperate for money to support their decaying infrastructure, Amazon can swoop in (literally) and make deals to provide "revenue" -- the very revenue they diverted from local government in the first place.

Amazon intends to dominate retail in the next decade. Own it. All pieces of it. There may simply be no choice but to receive shipments by drone.


Sometimes a cheap book delivered quickly, can be extraordinarily expensive.

Sally Applin
December 2, 2013

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