Exactly a decade ago, Amazon revealed a program that aimed to revolutionize shopping and shipping. Drones launched from a central hub would waft through the skies delivering just about everything anyone could need. They would be fast, innovative, ubiquitous — all the Amazon hallmarks.
The buzzy announcement, made by Jeff Bezos on “60 Minutes” as part of a Cyber Monday promotional package, drew global attention. “I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not,” said Mr. Bezos, Amazon’s founder and the chief executive at the time. The drones would be “ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place,” probably in 2015, the company said.
Eight additional years later, drone delivery is a reality — kind of — on the outskirts of College Station, Texas, northwest of Houston. That is a major achievement for a program that has waxed and waned over the years and lost many of its early leaders to newer and more urgent projects.
Yet the venture as it currently exists is so underwhelming that Amazon can keep the drones in the air only by giving stuff away. Years of toil by top scientists and aviation specialists have yielded a program that flies Listerine Cool Mint Breath Strips or a can of Campbell’s Chunky Minestrone With Italian Sausage — but not both at once — to customers as gifts. If this is science fiction, it’s being played for laughs.
A decade is an eternity in technology, but even so, drone delivery does not approach the scale or simplicity of Amazon’s original promotional videos. This gap between dazzling claims and mundane reality happens all the time in Silicon Valley. Self-driving cars, the metaverse, flying cars, robots, neighborhoods or even cities built from scratch, virtual universities that can compete with Harvard, artificial intelligence — the list of delayed and incomplete promises is long.
“Having ideas is easy,” said Rodney Brooks, a robotics entrepreneur and frequent critic of technology companies’ hype. “Turning them into reality is hard. Turning them into being deployed at scale is even harder.”
Amazon said last month that drone deliveries would expand to Britain, Italy and another, unidentified U.S. city by the end of 2024. Yet even on the threshold of growth, a question lingers. Now that the drones finally exist in at least limited form, why did we think we needed them in the first place?
Dominique Lord and Leah Silverman live in College Station’s drone zone. They are Amazon fans and place regular orders for ground delivery. Drones are another matter, even if the service is free for Amazon Prime members. While it’s cool to have stuff literally land on your driveway, at least the first few times, there are many hurdles to getting stuff this way.
Only one item can be delivered at a time. It can’t weigh over five pounds. It can’t be too big. It can’t be something breakable, since the drone drops it from 12 feet. The drones can’t fly when it is too hot or too windy or too rainy.
You need to be home to put out the landing target and to make sure that a porch pirate doesn’t make off with your item or that it doesn’t roll into the street (which happened once to Mr. Lord and Ms. Silverman). But your car can’t be in the driveway. Letting the drone land in the backyard would avoid some of these problems, but not if there are trees.
Amazon has also warned customers that drone delivery is unavailable during periods of high demand for drone delivery.
The other active U.S. test site is Lockeford, Calif., in the Central Valley. On a recent afternoon, the Lockeford site seemed largely moribund, with only three cars in the parking lot. Amazon said it was delivering via drones in Lockeford and arranged for a New York Times reporter to come back to the site. It also arranged an interview David Carbon, the former Boeing executive who runs the drone program. The company later canceled both without explanation.
A corporate blog post on Oct. 18 said that drones had safely delivered “hundreds” of household items in College Station since December, and that customers there could now have some medications delivered. Lockeford wasn’t mentioned.
After Ms. Silverman and Mr. Lord expressed initial interest in the drone program, Amazon offered $100 in gift certificates in October 2022 to follow through. But their service didn’t start until June, and then was suspended during a punishing heat wave when the drones could not fly.
The incentives, however, kept coming. The couple got an email the other day from Amazon pushing Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter, which usually costs $5.38 but was a “free gift” while supplies lasted. They ordered it, and a little while later a drone dropped a big box containing a small jar. Amazon said “some promotional items” are being offered “as a welcome.”
“We don’t really need anything they offer for free,” said Ms. Silverman, a 51-year-old novelist and caregiver. “The drones feel more like a toy than anything — a toy that wastes a huge amount of paper and cardboard.”
The Texas weather plays havoc with important deliveries. Mr. Lord, a 54-year-old professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M, ordered a medication through the mail. By the time he retrieved the package, the drug had melted. He’s hopeful that the drones can eventually handle problems like this.
“I still view this program positively knowing that it is in the experimental phase,” he said.
Amazon says the drones will improve over time. It announced a new model, the MK30, last year and released pictures in October. The MK30, which is slated to begin service by the end of 2024, was touted as having a greater range, an ability to fly in inclement weather and a 25 percent reduction in “perceived noise.”
When Amazon began working on drones years ago, the retailer took two or three days to ship many items to customers. It worried that it was vulnerable to potential competitors whose vendors were more local, including Google and eBay. Drones were all about speed.
“We can do half-hour delivery,” Mr. Bezos promised on “60 Minutes.”
For a while, drones were the next big thing. Google developed its own drone service, Wing, which now works with Walmart to deliver items in parts of Dallas and Frisco, Texas. Start-ups got funding — about $2.5 billion was invested between 2013 and 2019, according to the Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy. The veteran venture capitalist Tim Draper said in 2013 that “everything from pizza delivery to personal shopping can be handled by drones.” Uber Eats announced a food delivery drone in late 2019. The future was up in the air.
Amazon started thinking really long term. It envisioned, and got a patent for, a drone resupply vehicle that would hover in the sky at 45,000 feet. That’s above commercial airplanes, but Amazon said it could use the vehicles to deliver customers a hot dinner.
Yet on the ground, progress was slow, sometimes for technical reasons and sometimes because of the company’s corporate DNA. The same aggressive confidence that created a trillion-dollar business undermined Amazon’s efforts to work with the Federal Aviation Administration.
“The attitude was: ‘We’re Amazon. We’ll convince the F.A.A.,’” said one former Amazon drone executive, who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the subject. “The F.A.A. wants companies to come in with great humility and great transparency. That is not a strength of Amazon.”
A more complicated issue was getting the technology to the point where it was safe not just most of the time but all of the time. The first drone that lands on someone’s head, or takes off clutching a cat, sets the program back another decade, particularly if it is filmed.
“Part of the DNA of the tech industry is you can accomplish things you never thought you could accomplish,” said Neil Woodward, who spent four years as a senior manager in Amazon’s drone program. “But the truth is the laws of physics don’t change.”
Mr. Woodward, now retired, spent years at NASA in the astronaut program before moving to the private sector.
“When you work for the government, you have 535 people on your board of directors” — he was referring to Congress — “and a good chunk of them want to take your funding away because they have other priorities,” he said. “That makes government agencies very risk adverse. At Amazon, you’re given a lot of rope, but you can get out over your skis.”
In the end, there must be a market. As Mr. Woodward put it, using an old Silicon Valley cliché: “Do the dogs like the dog food? Sometimes the dogs don’t.”
Archie Conner, 82, lives a few doors down from Mr. Lord and Ms. Silverman. He sees the drones as less a retail innovation and more a marketing one.
“When you hear a drone, you naturally think about Amazon. It’s real out-of-the-box thinking, even if no one orders at all,” he said. “Drones were on the news just the other day. People say, ‘Wow, Amazon did that.’”
Mr. Conner also ordered the free Skippy peanut butter but forgot to put out the landing target, so the drone went away. Then he ordered it again. Meanwhile, an Amazon delivery person showed up with the first jar. So now he and his wife, Belinda, have two jars.
“We haven’t found much we really want to pay for,” Mr. Conner said. “But we have enjoyed the free peanut butter.”