Drones

Drones are in the news with Amazon’s announcement about its intention to use mini-copters to directly deliver products to customers by air within 30 minutes of placing the order. Ambitious. But drones are bigger, and far more revolutionary than getting a can of shaving cream on the double. Let’s just take a look at the current landscape.

My working assumptions are that every mode of transport currently existing will have drone versions within 5-10 years, but the comparative advantage of one mode over the other will not materially change. E.g., fixed wing aircraft will remain superior to helicopters in most situations.
MODES OF TRANSPORT

Helicopters

Of course the mini-copters are drones. Full-size choppers could be converted to drones as well. Helicopters have very high maintenance and fuel costs though which are not related to occupant safety. It’s the engines. Putting an A.I. at the helm will not improve these.

(What would improve these is a dramatic increase in battery energy density, allowing electric helicopters and engines. That would be a lot cheaper. But that’s beyond the scope of this article).

My assumption is that drone helicopters will remain a niche product, just as real ones are. The primary benefit will be “eyes in the sky”, like a news chopper, for the common man. But Amazon’s delivery service will remain a novelty.
Airplanes

This gets interesting, but not for people. Passengers would probably get freaked out at the thought of no pilot being at the helm. But for freight, drone cargo planes are the near term future.

Cars

I consider the Google self-driving cars to be drones. Anything that moves on wheels today will be a drone-car tomorrow. Taxis, delivery vans, busses.
Submarines

You think I jest? Behold the Narco Sub. Criminal elements are frequently on the cutting edge of technology. Notably, the US Coast Guard estimates they successfully intercept only 1 in 10 narcosubs.

Boats

I’m not immediately familiar with any drone boat plans, but this seems to be inevitable if we already have drone submarines. I would guess that drone boats are less intersting for commercial shipping as (1) the cost of crew is small relative to the cost of fuel on a super-carrier, and (2) a slow-moving and totally unmanned craft would be a tempting target for piracy. (Assuming that merchant shippers aren’t allowed remote controlled gun platforms)

 

THOUGHTS ON MARKET ORGANIZATION

The future is Uber, only more so. Decentralized, Point to point, and private. FedEx and UPS may continue to exist, but it won’t be duopoloy (with the USPS vestigal appendage) that we have today. Most of the market will probably be “independent”.

Imagine this – a company builds widgets in Utah, in an unmarked factory at the end of an umremarkable road. Maybe they get deliveries by FedEx, but not necessarily. They could own (or lease) their own drone-trucks for picking up supplies and delivering finished goods. Running low on feedstock A? Send a truck to get some more from the supplier.

There are ways to make the above model more efficient. You could have companies whose only job is to run trucks, and they keep fleets of them in reserve. You could move to a standard container system, where everything has to fit into one or two ISO Standard 6780 pallets, and drone trucks with drone forklifts come by every morning like the garbage man for pick-up and drop-off.

But the above isn’t necessary. If control, privacy, or other special needs take precendence, each producer could own (or lease) its own fleet of trucks. Nondescript, they’ll drive down the highways in wagon-chains (to conserve energy) with no indication of what they carry.

(Unless the Feds demand that every drone carry a transponder that announces their location, destination and cargo, and subjects them to spot checks to enforce honesty. But that sounds expensive and intrusive.)

The same goes for airplanes. Right now FedEx owns the largest fleet of planes in the world, but what about tramp cargo drones for hire? Send your truck to the nearest local airport for pick-up or drop-off. Once the planes get out over the ocean they can use wing-in-ground effect to approach the cost and efficiency of surface transport.

Within 10 years I expect cargo transport to be just as decentralized as the Internet is today. FedEx and UPS may exist, just like Google and Facebook do, but the majority of traffic will be outside the main channels.

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