Amazon’s next-day shipping miracle is possible only because it relies on companies like UPS to deliver its goods. So the news that UPS is experimenting with its own drone delivery system, reported today by The Verge, is an implicit endorsement of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s announcement at the weekend of Amazon’s own drone delivery plans. FedEx founder Fred Smith too has plans to deliver packages by drone, but it won’t be the small, quadcopter kind favored by Amazon. Instead, Smith wants the giant planes FedEx has criss-crossing the country to be replaced by unmanned aircraft because, he told Wired four years ago, a plane that doesn’t have to carry any people can be designed quite differently, with a lot more space for cargo.
Both efforts also seem to be about eliminating humans from the supply chain. A self-driving UPS truck that rolls onto the block, cracks open like a Decepticon and spews a small fleet of drones that fly out to drop packages on front stoops would go a long way towards reducing the company’s huge—and unionized—workforce. FedEx’s plans would eliminate airline pilots, who aren’t cheap either.
What’s stopping Amazon, UPS and FedEx is a combination of technological and regulatory issues. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration wants to be able to certify drones as safe before it will allow them to fly autonomously, which means engineers have to figure out how to program drones to avoid human beings and each other. It’s the same thicket of problems faced by self-driving cars, and resolving it means trusting machines to a degree unprecedented in human history. Or in other words, it could happen any day now.