On the tail end of Thanksgiving weekend, Amazon announced that it was testing a program, Prime Air, that would allow customers to get unmanned robot helicopters to deliver their packages in as little as half an hour. Skeptics chortled, but geeks everywhere immediately watched the YouTube mock-up and saw the Jetsons-like possibilities. What if drones could not only deliver things but pick them up? We could have an era of on-demand stuff that rivaled our television habits—press a button on an app, and a drone brings you a pair of cleats for your pickup soccer game; press a button the next day, and a drone arrives to return them to the store. Shopping and shipping would no longer be required. Ownership would be obsolete.
“Once drones enable the sharing economy for real,” wrote a Facebook product manager, Sam Lessin, in a post about the drones, “it is going to send serious ripples through the whole economic landscape.”
The excitement was followed almost immediately with the realization of a very obvious problem: As of now, drone delivery is illegal. A Senate committee is scheduled to look into the drone issue early next year, but federal aviation officials won’t finish writing the rules governing unmanned aircraft in the U.S. until at least 2015. Even if the FAA and Congress allow drones to be used for commercial purposes, there’s no guarantee that state and local lawmakers will follow suit. Imagine a mayor in small-town Ohio being asked to put up with a bunch of tiny helicopters buzzing around his neighborhoods, dropping off boxes and knocking into mailboxes and trees. (As Matt Waite, the founder of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab, put it to the Washington Post, “It’s all fun and games until little Sally loses a finger.”)
So if drone-dropped deliveries aren’t in our immediate future, what’s Amazon doing? One way to think about Amazon’s drone-delivery tease is not as a holiday publicity stunt or an earnest indication of the company’s plans for the future (though it is both) but as a way to nudge the regulatory debate about drones in Amazon’s favor.
You could call this the “charmware” approach to lobbying. A drone program isn’t exactly vaporware—the tech-world name for fanciful efforts that never materialize—since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos does, by all accounts, intend to put unmanned vehicles into his delivery fleet someday. But by creating a coalition of passionate, excited Amazon customers, hyped up about the promise of drone delivery, the company is launching a kind of veiled threat to regulators—stop our progress at your peril.
“I think there’s definitely an agenda here,” says Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Forrester Research. “There’s no question they want to have a seat at the table, and it can take years for something like this to be approved. Like anything, when you’re doing something this radical, you have to float the idea years ahead of time, get the consumer bought in, build anticipation, and then maybe it happens.”
Silicon Valley prides itself on “disrupting” highly regulated industries, like transportation, food, and lodging. And while these companies haven’t always mastered the regulation surrounding their chosen targets (see the kerfuffle 23andMe found itself in recently with the FDA over its unapproved marketing of DNA-testing kits, or Airbnb’s fight with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman over whether it has to turn over user data), they have found that charmware can be an effective technique for getting what they want. Making tantalizing preview videos, conducting social-media campaigns, and telling consumers how much better their lives will be when—not if—these products are legalized have become central to their business plans.
To see how effective the charmware strategy can be, look to its maestro: Elon Musk, the eccentric billionaire behind SpaceX, Solar City, and Tesla Motors. All of Musk’s companies have butted up against regulators and state officials for the usual reasons. But Musk, who carries Steve Jobs–like mystique among tech nerds, has developed a brilliant strategy for fighting back: He provides the ammo, in the form of sharply worded statements rebutting critical coverage or antagonistic legislators, and lets his fans do the rest. Earlier this year, when car-dealership associations in several states backed an effort to ban Tesla from selling cars directly to consumers, more than 100,000 Tesla fans signed a White House petition urging President Obama to intervene on Musk’s behalf. Obama never did, but the pressure helped in other ways; an anti-Tesla amendment in Ohio was dropped after fans mobilized against it, and Tesla antagonists in several state governments, including North Carolina and Virginia, chose to back down rather than deal with angry Muskheads.
This summer, Musk released his own version of the Amazon drone experiment: a plan for a high-speed transportation network called the Hyperloop that could bring passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes. Musk said that Hyperloop was mostly a thought experiment, but his fans begged him to make it a reality. The mass excitement over it got the attention of California transit authorities, who are currently struggling to make their own high-speed rail system work. It also helped fuel the notion, popular with the techno-utopians and central to their regulatory battles, that private-sector tech wizards might be able to handle big infrastructure projects better than the government.
Musk’s army of deregulatory supporters, and the grassroots lobbying strategy he’s perfected, may explain why Uber, another Silicon Valley upstart that has been dogged by run-ins with protectionist authorities, has been on its own charm crusade. The car-hailing app has run twee promotions in which it delivers ice cream and adoptable kittens from local rescue agencies to users; last week, it announced that it would deliver a Christmas tree to users in ten cities for $135. In several cities where Uber is banned, including Austin and Calgary, the company has responded by giving away rides for free and urging locals to contact their legislators. One theory behind these stunts, apart from mere PR exposure, is that when people come to feel emotionally attached to Uber’s services, they’ll be more likely to come to the company’s defense.
Amazon’s drone program has a far more treacherous path than Tesla and Uber’s efforts. Drones, especially self-piloting ones, raise dozens of legal, ethical, and technical questions. What happens if a package-carrying drone is stolen from a customer’s lawn or damaged in flight? Who is liable if one slices into an electric wire or crashes into someone or something? How will apartment dwellers receive their packages? And if Amazon gets the massive drone network it seeks, how will it protect large cities from congested, locustlike swarms of buzzing overhead robots? Not to mention the possibility for mischief—as one wag tweeted, the drone program could amount to “free stuff from Amazon if you’re a good shot with a rifle.” But if Amazon and its armies of drone enthusiasts can make legalization happen, it’ll be worth the effort. “A single FedEx truck probably costs $20,000 or $30,000,” Mulpuru says. “You could get twenty drones for that.”
*This post has been revised and expanded since it's original publication.