You’ve got to hand it to Amazon.com. While consistently turning a profit has eluded Amazon for the past 18 years, the company has consistently taken a lead in disrupting retail. Whether it’s inventing e-commerce as a mainstream B2C transactional channel, taking a leading role in hosted cloud services with Amazon Web Services or helping to usher in the tablet era with Kindle e-readers, Amazon.com has never been afraid to do things in a way that alters how retail business is conducted.
With his recent surprise revelation on a popular TV news program that Amazon is developing a plan for automated drones to deliver some customer packages within half an hour of purchase, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos once again proves his company remains at the forefront of retail disruption. Retailers and technology vendors have been trying to overhaul almost every aspect of e-commerce, but have made little effort to dramatically change the shipping experience beyond easing product return.
It’s not too surprising Amazon is taking a lead in attempting to bypass third-party delivery providers and directly touch customers through its delivery experience. However, despite deserving credit for thinking well outside the box, there are also a few precautions Amazon must take as it pushes the boundaries of e-commerce fulfillment.
Drone delivery may be convenient, but also potentially risky. Before launching drone delivery (we’ll assume at some point Congress will provide the regulations for commercial drone usage the FAA has mandated), Amazon needs to ensure that its drones can get from point A to point B without crashing into other drones, automobiles, people or homes. The drones will fly well lower than aircraft so that should not be a significant issue, but especially considering that Amazon.com will be taking on liability currently assumed by third-party delivery providers, the company must take every measure to guarantee that drone delivery is safe.
Know Your Limitations
For a variety of reasons, Amazon will not be able to use drones for all deliveries. Some products will be too big, bulky or fragile for drones to effectively and safely carry, some distances will be too far, some locations will be too remote or difficult to reach, and drone traffic will undoubtedly have tight restrictions. The retailer must devise an intelligent system to assign certain deliveries, and only certain deliveries, to drones. FedEx, UPS and other third-party carriers will still have plenty of opportunity to make Amazon deliveries even once the drones are flying.
Have a Backup Plan
Like any other form of aircraft, even the most sophisticated drones are still wholly subject to the whims of wind and weather. A major blizzard striking right before Christmas would wreak havoc on plans for last-minute, drone-based deliveries of holiday gift purchases. Drone traffic could also be unexpectedly disrupted by security-related flight restrictions (such as the president visiting a certain area) and a host of other unavoidable situations. Therefore, Amazon must always have a ground-based backup plan for any and all drone deliveries.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that even the very best technology is still no match for Mother Nature or for the unpredictabilities of human behavior. No matter how well drone-based delivery may work, Amazon will need to keep this in mind.