Why Bezos’s Drone Is More Than a Joke

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Farhad Manjoo, Kolumnist beim WSJ:

First, the plan got everyone talking about Amazon and its Prime subscription service right at the start of the holiday shopping season—even, I’m sorry, this columnist. Next, it gave investors a taste of the scope of Amazon’s investment plans, forestalling any expectation that the company plans to begin making big money soon. And it cemented Mr. Bezos’s image as the biggest thinker in tech, a guy who won’t let little things like „illegal,“ „implausible“ and „kind of silly“ stop him from considering better ways to deliver your toothpaste.

And yet, despite all this, I’m very happy Mr. Bezos is backing unmanned aerial vehicles. UAVs get a bad rap. They’ve become associated with surveillance and militarism, and most rational discussions of the technology are hijacked by fears of the imminent robotic takeover of our skies. While these are justified concerns, I fear they’ve gotten out of hand.

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Mr. Raptopoulos is one of the founders of Matternet, a tiny Silicon Valley start-up that is building a UAV transportation system that he says will be useful in developing countries that lack passable roads. For the transportation of crucial goods, small drones have several distinct advantages over ground-based vehicles, he says. They’re fast, energy efficient, and—most importantly—they don’t require huge investments in infrastructure to start working.

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In the U.S. and much of the developed world, the most promising initial use for drones will be in agriculture, says Jonathan Downey, CEO of Airware, a startup that is making autopilot systems for commercial UAVs. „There’s a huge multibillion-dollar business case for using drones to provide frequent, high-accuracy imaging of crops,“ says Mr. Downey. Still, his enthusiasm is tempered by the regulatory climate in the U.S. In part because of public fear, the Federal Aviation Administration has imposed strict limits on the use of commercial drones.

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Even if it’s only smoke and mirrors, I’m hoping Mr. Bezos’s announcement will prompt a more rational discussion of the costs and benefits of robotic birds in the sky.