Bumps on the drone road
DreamHammer's high-flying investor insight is exactly this: Bezos' hype aside, drones are as un-revolutionary as un-revolutionary gets. In fact, remote-controlled unmanned flight systems date from -- get ready, robot drone hipsters -- the early days of World War II! All the way back in 1939, Hitler's Luftwaffe commissioned something called the Argus As 292, a remote surveillance craft that saw live service by 1942. And go take a peek at the Fieseler Fi-103, known as the V-1 Flying Bomb. This unmanned craft, which saw service over London in 1945, bears a striking resemblance to today's RQ-1 Predator drone.
Both have single-jet engines, no place for a pilot and active remote control.
Unmanned aircraft use has continued since, or three times longer than the commercially deployed Internet. And military unmanned vehicles such as Northrop Grumman's (NOC) RQ-4 Global Hawk and X-47B flying jet and the Lockheed Martin (LMT) K-Max self-flying helicopter have seen essentially continuous duty worldwide for decades.
"These craft are extraordinarily autonomous and reliable," Diebner said. "Each has hundreds of thousands of hours of doing far more complex things than dropping off boxes on doorsteps."
It turns out, rather, that the challenges Amazon Prime Air will face lies in the minutiae of bringing the large-scale, unmanned aircraft market down into the retail sales channel. Here lies a veritable Twilight Zone of nickel-and-dime issues that will weigh down quickly Bezo's dream of getting into the itty-bitty airplane business.
"You will need a remarkable amount of redundancies in these systems to keep them safe," Diebner said. That implies the entire drone hardware equation, including material science, battery systems, communications infrastructure, autopilots, payload management and control systems, must be reinvented for small craft plying high-population areas.
Next, there will be significant software problems to overcome with drones. The unmanned plane market is so mature that Paez estimates there are thousands of flying drone makers worldwide, each of whom may -- or may not -- use common computer languages needed to host an active service such as Prime Air.
"We integrate all this software now," Paez said. "It's like the early days of the PC. There are a lot of DIY makers writing their own code. And that's a tough market to scale."