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Sustainable Futures

Amazon, drones and the importance of thinking big

With Amazon Prime Air, Amazon has set out a bold image of the future that will influence the future of cities and society as a whole — regardless whether it becomes a reality. 

This is a company that knows where it is going and what sort of future it wants. We need more of this, but in the service of sustainability.

The plan to use drones for delivery has been in the public domain for a good while, and initially was met with skepticism by many. I spoke to drone enthusiasts at the time who told me it was pure gimmick and totally impractical — the amount of energy needed to carry anything but the lightest package would make it far too expensive.

But in recent months, it’s become clear that the folk at Amazon do not agree. In May, the details of their patent were published, showing how Amazon drones will link up with people’s smart phones to find them. They will be able to plot routes by sharing real-time data on weather conditions and air traffic.

Now, the company has published a white paper with proposals for how to overcome a chief barrier to Prime Air: the need to change airspace regulation. As GreenBiz recently reported, the company detailed the proposal at a recent event held by NASA and attended by leaders in the aerospace, aviation and technology industries.

If Amazon and other delivery firms get their way, urban airspace between 200 and 400 feet above ground level will be reserved for autonomous delivery drones. Below 200 feet will be reserved for “low-speed localized traffic” and above 500 feet for “integrated airspace.”

Suddenly it's possible to imagine with great clarity where this all might be heading: Drones of all sorts and sizes flying around filling the air, much as cars and bikes fill road space today.

Not too far in the future, you may find it perfectly normal to answer your door to a flying robot, who will greet you and engage you in small talk as it hands over the new T-shirt you ordered just 20 minutes earlier. Maybe this seems bizarre, but at the time so too did Bill Gates’ vision of a computer in every home, or Henry Ford’s vision of automobiles for the masses.

Where do drones meet sustainability?

The point of this is not to lay into drones as the next great evil — although I do struggle to see how the ethos of instant fulfilment behind Amazon Prime Air can make a useful contribution to a sustainable future.

Still, there are many, many ways in which drones will have a positive impact on the world.

From precision agriculture to conservation, humanitarian relief, medical deliveries, search and rescue, security or traffic management, the applications are seemingly endless.

Rather, the point is that this is an extraordinarily powerful vision that captures the imagination and hardly can fail to shape the future.

In the same way that “Star Trek” shaped the future of cell phones and sliding doors, or “Minority Report” how people think about computer interfaces, Amazon is shaping our future cityscape.

Whether by design or by accident, the company is cultivating “a shared idea in the minds of society,” a shared story of the future — something that system-change theorist Donella Meadows said can have paradigm-shaping power.

While we need with desperate urgency to transform our economy, food and energy systems, few, if any, compelling sustainability-related ideas capture the public imagination like this.

Sure, companies have set ambitious targets that many find personally inspiring. Countless start-ups have plans for how they are going to change the world. More power to their elbows.

And there are compelling ideas — such as the Net Positive vision set out by my colleague Helen Clarkson — with great potential. But even the “Global Energy Apollo Program” seems vague and intangible when compared with the vision of a drone-filled sky and near-instant delivery.

In many areas, we are making progress on sustainability, there is no doubt. But we should be moving so much faster.

Perhaps we don’t need reminding that a tangible, exciting vision of the future that captures the public imagination is what sustainability is crying out for. But Amazon has reminded us anyway.

Want to know more about drones and the next generation of connected transportation solutions? Don't miss VERGE 2015, Oct. 26-29 in San Jose, California.

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