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Amazon Delivery by Drones and Thoughts for Libraries

by Joe Murphy Librarian on December 2nd, 2013

In a 60 Minutes interview, Amazon CEO & Founder Jeff Bezos dropped a marketing bomb by unveiling a plan to use unmanned aerial drones for ecommerce delivery. The plan wouldn’t come into reality for years to come, but the impacts are being felt immediately, including for libraries. The big reveal also shows that once again the next battles in innovation will be expansions of traditional areas.

The What:

On 60 minutes last night, Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos shared Amazon’s plans to use octo-copters, unmanned autonomous aerial aircraft, aka drones, for delivery dubbed Amazon Air Prime. The service would deliver purchases of up to 5 pounds (which covers 86% of what they deliver) to a radius of 10 miles within 30 minutes time.
Bezos unveiled it as his big surprise, ‘his one more thing’ in a grand PR move that stole the show. Charlie Rose himself referred to is as “Amazon’s boldest venture ever” once he saw it (Bezos was so sure of the surprise that he told CBS producers that if they could guess he would them give half his fortune).
Amazon acknowledges the project will not likely become a reality before 2015 because of FAA regulations and that it is completely R&D now. Check out Amazon’s promotional YouTube video for the ad, also embedded at the bottom. Amazon has gotten us talking about them again as they themselves fear being out-disrupted.

Impact and synthesis – Some of my preliminary analysis.

This is about three things; media access, competition, and in line adaptations.

Although there is a lot potential for media delivery this is more about the ecommerce war. Many books exceed the 5 lbs weight limit and DVDs etc may be more realistic.

It is important to watch possible futures in media provision and what this book and commerce giant does and hopes for. Its moves continue to create opportunities and challenges for libraries as it guides media expectations for the public. But this news says more about competition in the ecommerce space than anything else.

This is also about an entity trying to stave off its atrophy and its own disruption. Bezos admits in the interview that he believes Amazon will eventually be disrupted away as new nimble players continue to shake up the space. It is an eventuality. PR gimmicks are not the solution, but preparing in advance to industry pivots can be.

A possibly truer value for amazon is positioning itself to guide the discourse on the opening standards for drone use in private sector delivery just as it did by being a stakeholder literally at the table on the panel that made the recommendation adopted by the FAA to allow devices during all parts of flights. Drone shave been called the next major change coming in the private air sector and Amazon may also be predicting that drones will also be a major factor in e-commerce.

Amazon has been working hard to compete heavily against Walmart etc in e-commerce as the race to success has meant shortening delivery time as same day delivery is no longer the golden standard. This comes on the heals of last months’ news that Amazon would begin Sunday delivery in partnership with the USPS.

60 Minutes producer Draggan Mihailovich was right on when he said “the big idea is half hour delivery.” It isn’t the technology nor the concept, it is a leap forward in delivery time which is retailers’ current major battle. However, we are already seeing the half day and even the hour delivery and I am sure we will see other solutions to the half hour delivery well before the drone delivery program takes off. So again, this is a PR move to outpace the competition, at least in discourse. Amazon is feeling the pinch.

The recent controversies over military and surveillance drones have inspired fears as well as imagination. Like the recent airplane device policy conversations, there is a policy tension with enterprising innovation across industries as drones are sometimes seen as over legislated now. The controversy surrounding drones also makes it provocative, attracting attention that cannot be tempered due to current restrictions.

The inclusion of “Prime” in the project’s name “Amazon Prime Air” reveals a push of Amazon’s member service and attached priorities of streaming online content and speedy delivery membership program.

Is it really “out of the Jetsons” as one producer put it or is it a new angle on the old? We should not fail to notice that this announcement was made on old media, 60 Minutes, long form television. We are in an age of innovation happening within and expanding traditional spaces, not creating whole new arenas. I believe this reflects a maturation in many of our recent technological advances reaching cultural stability.

Other Aspects of Note:

The drones for delivery conversation has been happening for awhile now (drones for delivery of pizza, beer, and textbooks. Drones for scientific and industry observations), but will a behemoth like Amazon coming into the field force the focus to ‘delivery drones’ over ‘war drones’ in our lexicon?
That Charlie Rose could not recognize what the drones were in the interview before Bezos explained them may date the reporter considering their impact on many areas of late and I suspect will not be repeated by others as the impact by Amazon’s entering the space is felt.

I think one of the interview’s best part was when asked to define Amazon, Bezos used mission areas not services. “I would define Amazon by our big ideas, which are customer centricity, putting the customer at the center of everything we do, invention. We like to pioneer, we like to explore, we like to go down dark alleys and see what’s on the other side.” He did not define Amazon as an ecommerce business. When asked to define libraries do we also say “a pioneer in the community,” “big ideas,” “costumer centric,” and “explorer?”

It was also of note that Bezos spoke of Amazon’s capital of trust in the context of their very successful long tail approach. This focus on trust is always at the forefront of our conversations about the library’s value going forward. For Amazon and for libraries, trust is an investment to protect. Libraries enjoy the trust of our users at a level only dreamed of by other elements and its protection is one strategy for future success as we balance new directions.

Thoughts For Libraries:

This is not a major disruptive challenge for libraries. It could though become a platform for opportunities bringing similar challenges we have already faced.

I suspect the first impacted areas for libraries will be of remote access and the digital divide, the continued eminence of print, adapting to outside technology to strengthen traditional services, supplementing traditional mobile library trucks.

Surface options for libraries I imagine will be having the library serve as a host delivery hub for locals to collect their Amazon Prime Air purchases. The Drone delivery system will be optimized for urban areas because of its distance limit so libraries can act as local hubs for customers to come and collect their delivered goods and possibly for libraries to partner with Amazon as local refueling hubs to extend their reach in line with Amazon’s local hub model for its distribution system.

Book delivery is an important area but libraries probably do not have the infrastructure to act in this area so our role will not be to compete. We may though play a role. Not exactly an immediate issue for libraries in context of delivery of print media but will be of import to libraries once it opens up to e-content

What will be important to watch will be how kindle e-lending may evolve to include print via drones.

Will the library facilitate Amazon Prime memberships? Will there be an extension of inter-library loan via Amazon drones? Will the library procure more through Amazon to make use of this?

What ways do you imagine libraries and library vendors will play a role in unmanned air vehicles with or without Amazon?

I am an Amazon Prime member and would make use of drone delivery while watching the impacts across industries. Can the New York Times also please add drone home delivery?

See the full segment of this 60 Minutes interview online and

Here is Amazon’s promotional YouTube Video

- – Joe Murphy, Librarian

From → futures, technology

One Comment
  1. Joe Murphy Librarian permalink

    A point to remember is that drones and drone commerce are here now, it is happening outside the US and it is coming. The barrier is about policy and that debate is subsiding. The autonomous air vehicle era is already here. Its efficacy in ecommerce will be seen and is debatable. But our responses now should be considering impacts and opportunities, not railing against a possible/likely though justifiably alarming future.

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