In the retail battle of the drones, Google's the pragmatist, but Amazon's the dreamer

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Credit: Thinkstock

If you want to understand how these companies differ, study their drone filings.

In the retail battle of the drones, who would have guessed that Google would be more practical than Amazon? Of course, in the universe of retail flying drones, it's depressing what passes for practical these days.

Amazon has been all over the map in ways drones can deliver packages to customers in minutes. But my personal favorite was Amazon's plan to fly directly to the customer—not the customer's home or office—but wherever that customer's phone thinks the customer is. That particular Amazon patent said "the ordered item will be delivered to the user while the user is at their friend's house, or any other location."

And then there's this example: "The user has provided information that can be used to determine the current location of the user's boat. The location of the user's boat may be determined based on the GPS of the boat and retrieving GPS data from the boat."

That Amazon plan would allow for the ultimate retail experience. Imagine this: Some shoppers are browsing a few Madison Ave. storefronts in New York when one spies the perfect outfit. She snaps a picture of the item in the window and Amazon identifies it. She orders the items and selects its fastest drone-powered delivery option. The group then decides to find a place to eat lunch outside. Near the end of their meal, the drone flies to their table and drops off the already-paid-for outfit at the feet of the shopper before flying off.

That's a great vision, but sometimes reality has a way of interfering. Contrast that with the sobering U.S. patent issued on January 26th to Google. Google started by pouring water on the high-flying (my apologies) ideas from Amazon.

"Unmanned aerial delivery devices may be problematic for delivery to users. For example, an aerial delivery device that is powered by a rotor or an impeller may be dangerous to pets, overhead power lines, ceiling fans or other features or residents at a deliver location," the patent said. "Furthermore, the aerial delivery device may not recognize a safe place to deliver a package. For example, leaving the package on the front porch of a busy street address may make it more likely that the package is stolen. Detailed delivery instructions to an unmanned aerial delivery device may be difficult for the limited vision system of the aerial delivery device to interpret. Thus, conventional aerial delivery device methods do not allow for safe, secure delivery of packages to delivery locations."

OK. So what does Google have in mind? They want to use drones to deliver close to the destination, but to drop the packages into a receptacle that uses beacons to precisely navigate the drones. From there, the receptacle goes to a central location such as warehouse. Then it's up to human-operated 20th century vehicles—something called a truck—to finish the deliver.

In other words, Google wants to flip the model. Amazon's vision is to use traditional transport mechanism to get the package to local warehouses, where drones do the last-mile delivery. Google wants to use the drones to get the packages—via these receptacles—to warehouses.

Google's approach is more practical, as its stated concerns about the feasibility of unleashing an air force of unmanned drones into neighborhoods and office parks is well-argued. But it's not quite clear what the point of using the drones are. Current drones can't fly long distances, nor can they handle substantial weight. If not used for the proverbial last-mile, what's the big advantage?

There are times for practicality and times for technology dreamers to push typical boundaries. (Besides, leaving packages on the porches of busy buildings is something that FedEx and UPS have done for years. They think of it as an honor system.) Detailed mapping and sensors should eventually solve the danger issues. But there's something about that apparel box finding where the shopper has gone to lunch and flying it right to her that is magical.

Drones are not the stuff of practicality. They are pushing the limits of today's retail world. It's the magic of seeing a product and having it literally fly to you in an hour or less. Silicon Valley's most powerful startups have always started with an unrealistic vision that somehow works. 

Elon Musk wanted to fly rockets that could land and be re-used. Experience said it wouldn't work. His idea for addressing the energy crisis was to make all-electric cars and make them more fun and gadget-oriented than anything from Germany or Japan. 

Whether they'll eventually work out is unknown, but there's something to be said for reaching for something that breaks boundaries and raises questions that you can't yet answer.

Google may be the pragmatist, but Amazon's the dreamer. My money is on the dreamer.

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