Amazon's Drone Future Is A Lot Like Its Online Present

The company is building itself like infrastructure

amazon air drone
Amazon's Prime Air drone is testing in Canada, U.K., and Denmark.Amazon

Amazon, the technology giant grown out of an idea for an online bookshop, sits like a massive spider atop the world of online commerce. Amazon has a stake in much of what happens: It sells goods directly, guides other people to retailers, and lives by nibbling off pieces of the fees paid to do so. But perhaps it’s best not to think of Amazon itself as a massive store, but a functional appendage to the infrastructure of the online world.

That, at least, appears to be the thesis behind "Think Amazon's Drone Delivery Idea Is a Gimmick? Think Again" by Farhad Manjoo in today's New York Times. Manjoo writes:

First, it’s not trying to replace third­-party shippers. Instead, over the next few years, Amazon wants to add as much capacity to its operations as possible, and rather than replace partners like UPS and FedEx, it is spending boatloads on planes, trucks, crowdsourcing and other novel delivery services to add to its overall capacity and efficiency.

We've seen this most recently with Amazon branding its own fleet of cargo airplanes to assist in delivery. Amazon isn't trying to crowd out anyone already in the business of deliveries goods to customers. That's existing infrastructure, and without it, Amazon would have a much harder time getting goods where they need to be. Instead, Amazon is trying to bolster this, so that deliveries from Amazon arrive when expected, even during peak times.

We've seen this approach from Amazon before, for online traffic itself. As Robinson Meyer wrote in The Atlantic:

Amazon is due to announce the size of its Web Services product. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a set of cloud services often used by startups, big companies, and government agencies. You might know AWS better as “the servers that run Netflix and Instagram.” AWS lets companies buy powerful computers cheaply and whenever they need them to handle traffic, to store video, to power a database. It’s not an understatement to say that AWS is the piece of infrastructure that has enabled the current tech boom. The only single technology which might come close to it is the smartphone.

How did Amazon get into the business of renting servers in the first place? From the Atlantic, again, this time as part of Ingrid Burrington's series on the physical spaces of the internet. Burrington writes:

Amazon didn’t invent the principles behind cloud computing, but they made the infrastructure of cloud computing into a dirt-cheap commodity. In Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, Jeff Bezos is quoted comparing AWS to power utilities: “You go back in time a hundred years, if you wanted to have electricity, you had to build your own little electric power plant, and a lot of factories did this. As soon as the electric-power grid came online, they dumped their electric-power generator, and they started buying power off the grid. It just makes more sense. And that’s what is starting to happen with infrastructure computing.”

What the web needed to grow was the ability to handle high volumes of traffic, suddenly. The electrical grid is an apt metaphor. Homes use bursts of electricity in the morning, heating water for showers, powering toasters and coffeemakers, and then typically sit idle during the day, until people come home after work and start up the TV, the stove, plug in their phones, and open up their laptops. An infrastructure built for even use all the time would collapse under the patterns of daily life, as every evening high demand would overtax supply and cause rolling blackouts.

With web traffic, the consequence isn’t quite so bad, but there’s a definite evening rush as more people go online and watch Netflix when they get home. Amazon Web Services is the infrastructure that prevents that crash by letting companies buy, through a largely automated process, the extra server space they need, as immediately as they need it.

Shipping goods, too, has a similar pattern, as Americans rediscover every December. Holidays are a high-capacity time for shipping, and Amazon’s excess capacity is one way to meet that demand, as it happens.

There are hurdles to this: Unlike putting more servers on the internet, there is only so much capacity than Amazon can gain by putting more trucks on the road until the traffic they cause further delays deliveries. So to get around the clogged roads, Amazon’s drone service is looking to the sky.

Again, from Manjoo:

Amazon’s longer­term goal is more fantastical — and, if it succeeds, potentially transformative. It wants to escape the messy vicissitudes of roads and humans. It wants to go fully autonomous, up in the sky. The company’s drone program, which many in the tech press dismissed as a marketing gimmick when Mr. Bezos unveiled it on “60 Minutes” in 2013, is central to this future; drones could be combined with warehouses manned by robots and trucks that drive themselves to unlock a new autonomous future for Amazon.

It's hard to make a part of the physical world as automatically responsive to immediate need as renting server space. A fleet of autonomous drones, carrying cargoes and even recharging from streetlight perches would be the next closest thing, a physical web over all our heads, bringing us everything we want within 48 hours of our wanting it.