Think Amazon’s Drone Delivery Idea Is a Gimmick? Think Again

Think Amazon’s Drone Delivery Idea Is a Gimmick? Think Again

Amazon is the most obscure large company in the tech industry.

It isn’t just secretive, the way Apple is, but in a deeper sense, Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce and cloud-storage giant is opaque. Amazon rarely explains either its near-term tactical aims or its long-term strategic vision. It values surprise.

To understand Amazon, then, is necessarily to engage in a kind of Kremlinology. That’s especially true of the story behind one of its most important business areas: the logistics by which it ships orders to its customers.

Over the last few years, Amazon has left a trail of clues that suggests it is radically altering how it delivers goods. Among other moves, it has set up its own fleet of trucks; introduced an Uber-like crowdsourced delivery service; built many robot-powered warehouses; and continued to invest in a far-out plan to use drones for delivery. It made another splash last week, when it showed off an Amazon-branded Boeing 767 airplane, one of more than 40 in its planned fleet.

These moves have fueled speculation that Amazon is trying to replace the third-party shipping companies it now relies on — including UPS, FedEx and the United States Postal Service — with its homegrown delivery service. Its logistics investments have also fed the general theory that Amazon has become essentially unbeatable in American e-commerce — no doubt one reason Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, felt the need this week to acquire an audacious Amazon rival, Jet.com, for $3.3 billion.

So what’s Amazon’s ultimate aim in delivery? After talking to analysts, partners and competitors, and prying some very minimal input from Amazon itself, I suspect the company has a two-tiered vision for the future of shipping.

First, it’s not trying to replace third-party shippers. Instead, over the next few years, Amazon wants to add as much capacity to its operations as possible, and rather than replace partners like UPS and FedEx, it is spending boatloads on planes, trucks, crowdsourcing and other novel delivery services to add to its overall capacity and efficiency.

Amazon’s longer-term goal is more fantastical — and, if it succeeds, potentially transformative. It wants to escape the messy vicissitudes of roads and humans. It wants to go fully autonomous, up in the sky. The company’s drone program, which many in the tech press dismissed as a marketing gimmick when Mr. Bezos unveiled it on “60 Minutes” in 2013, is central to this future; drones could be combined with warehouses manned by robots and trucks that drive themselves to unlock a new autonomous future for Amazon.

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