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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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The Amazon Drone: Is It All About Buzz?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos showed Charlie Rose a prototype delivery copter, and the world went wild over it.

Sure. Unleash tens of thousands of delivery drones into the cities and suburbs of America and let fly a million fingers of curious toddlers! Revel in the biological wonder of mulched doggies and kitty cats who thought they’d take a closer look. Even the military’s GPS systems can’t account for small inaccuracies caused by atmospheric effects, signal reflection and clocking errors. On Elm Street, “small inaccuracies” mean the difference between a safe landing on the lawn and taking out the front window, and Grandma.

To get past the trees, telephone lines and my unstable neighbor holding a baseball bat and mumbling at the sky, robot deliveries would have to use remote human pilots and on-board cameras, which raise all kinds of other issues and concerns.

After about a day of operating in most of Nassau and Suffolk counties, Amazon would be hit with more lawsuits than Carl Denham after Kong escaped.

Delivery drones can work in some circumstances, and there are probably people in the Hamptons and on two-acre properties thinking about where the landing pad will fit best.

There’s a lot going on here, but it has little to do with flying robots. It has to do with changing consumer perceptions and laying the groundwork for the Next America. It looks a lot like this America, except nobody is complaining.

This was an infomercial. Bezos said, “Let me show you something,” and the camera crew was already set up inside the octocopter room to capture the look on Charlie’s face and his exclamations, making it clear how we are expected to feel. We want octocopters. Say it again. Now go tell your Congressman, your Town Board, your children.

Last year, Congress directed the FTC to grant commercial drones sky access by September 2015. The fight over how much control local governments still have over what is zipping through their streets is coming to Long Island. If our leaders fight.

The next day, television news operations were fighting to film inside one of Amazon’s giant regional fulfillment centers. There has been a stream of local headlines around America, from San Bernardino to Baltimore to Windsor (Connecticut) about how much the planned fulfillment center will be an economic boon. Everyone wants a one-million-square-foot fulfillment center near them.

Earlier this season, Amazon announced it was hiring 70,000 seasonal workers to beef up the staffing at its fulfillment centers. Some might even be converted to full-time employees.

But a week before the Rose infomercial, the BBC showed video by an undercover reporter who had worked the night shift at one of the eight Amazon fulfillment centers in Great Britain. His video showed stunningly stressful working conditions, the kind that make people snap. The report got lots of coverage in Europe. Amazon is a worldwide phenomenon, and people are starting to look past the smiley logo.

The 1990s version of the Big Box Store is crumbling in the face of permanently high fuel prices. The Super Colossal Regional Distribution Center is the next model.

Wal-Mart has been taking heat from Main Street for years, but Amazon has really shaken up the retail and manufacturing spheres. Black Friday sales predict nothing about holiday season sales or about the economy in general. Many go to stores to try stuff out and then order it online, and there’s little you can’t buy through Amazon. Its vast scale and innovation in every phase of a sale, including delivery, is good for you, good for everyone, with no meaningful consequences to local economies. This was the real message.

This wasn’t news, it was a sermon, with cool copters.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net