The Interesting Thing About Google's Delivery Drones Is Not The Drones, But Massive Societal Shift They Envision

from the the-sharing-society dept

Alexis Madrigal, over at The Atlantic, has the big scoop story concerning Google's project to create delivery drones, in its Google X moonshot factory. The project, unimaginatively dubbed Project Wing, has many people comparing it to Amazon's similarly announced plans for delivery drones. And, of course, for years before that, we discussed ideas like the TacoCopter (and the LobsterCopter) which some people were trying to build to deliver food via drones. Google has confirmed the project (notably never using the term drone, but instead "self-flying vehicles") with this video:
Of course, as we've been noting since the TacoCopter days, the big problem here is that the FAA hates drones and insists that they are 100% illegal for any for-profit effort no matter how useful or reasonable.

While most people are comparing this to Amazon's drone delivery idea, or talking about the nature of "instant gratification," it seems like many are totally missing the much bigger thinking behind Google's effort here. Like most truly disruptive innovations, the interesting thing here isn't in just delivering packages faster, but how such a move could totally reshape society -- a vision that the team behind this at Google apparently are well aware of. From Madrigal's writeup, this key part is buried in the middle, but is the most important point. This isn't about faster delivery. This is about how faster delivery can totally change our relationship to physical things:

The idea goes like this: Because people can’t assume near-instantaneous delivery of whatever they need, they stockpile things. They might have a bunch of batteries, slowly decharging in a drawer, or a drill that they use for 10 minutes a year. Each of these things is a personal possession that sits around, embodying all this energy and industrial effort unproductively.

If this sounds familiar, it should: It is the argument—even down to the drill example—that organizations like Worldchanging made in the mid-00s for the creation of “product-service systems.” Those ideas, in turn, became key planks in the original conception of the “sharing economy,” imagined as one in which the world could make much less stuff because efficient, digital logistics would let each asset be used by more people.

“It would help move us from an ownership society to an access society. We would have more of a community feel to the things in our lives,” Teller preached. “And what if we could do that and lower the noise pollution and lower the carbon footprint, while we improve the safety of having these things come to you?”

People like to mock ideas like "the sharing economy" for putting things like homes and cars to more efficient use rather than leaving them idle all the time. But drones that can move things about easily, quickly and efficiently really could absolutely change how we think about property and ownership. Now, for those who are worried about Google, they might not like Google being at the center of this, but it's hardly likely that they'll be the only player in this space.

But this is also why the FAA's restrictions could be so damaging. The FAA, like so many government bureaucracies, has trouble viewing the future. They only view it through the prism of the past. So, drones are seen as toys that might "interfere with airplanes." The FAA is in absolutely no rush to allow commercial drone use (which is why Google's tests are all being done in Australia), because to FAA bureaucrats, what's the big deal? Drones are toys. The fact that they could reshape certain aspects of the way society works doesn't even enter the picture.

But if you're trying to understand where the future of innovation is going, dismissing projects like this as just being about toys -- or even just being about delivering things faster -- means that you're missing everything.

Filed Under: consumerism, delivery, drones, economics, google x, ownership, predictions, sharing, sharing economy
Companies: google

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  1. identicon
    Rich Kulawiec, 29 Aug 2014 @ 10:12am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    You're not thinking like an attacker. (Which is understandable, most people don't.)

    A single drone can't carry much in the way of explosives. And, being a single drone, it can only hit one target.

    On the other hand, it's an awfully small, evasive target to hit if you're trying to take it out. I don't believe that there exists a weapon system capable of doing so in an urban environment. (Picture one flying above a downtown street at 100 feet. How, EXACTLY, do you plan to take it down before it reaches its target, and how, EXACTLY, do you plan to do that without inflicting a heck of a lot of collateral damage on everything and everyone in the vicinity?)

    But it's not even necessary to involve explosives: in case anyone's forgotten recent history, flying objects make decent kinetic weapons. Particularly if they're directed straight down so that the v-squared part of mv^2 is large.

    But this is all just the beginning. A competent attacker won't just use one drone: they'll use many, in order to either (a) hit multiple targets simultaneously or (b) swarm onto a single target. Armed or unarmed, that's a lot of high-speed objects to contend with. (Even merely disabling them -- so that they drop out of the sky passively -- could inflict a lot of casualties and damage depending on where it happened.)

    We've already seen hideous security problems with "smart" cars. We've already seen hideous security problems with "the Internet of things". There is no reason to think that we won't see hideous security problems with drones, too. So attackers will be able to acquire them, whether by hijacking them in flight, or by compromising their C&C networks, or by the simple expedient of breaking into the warehouse where they're stored and loaded them into a truck. And when the inevitable happens, we will of course hear "nobody could have foreseen", as we always do.

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