homeabout kottke.orgarchives + tagsmembership!
aboutarchives + tagsmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about drones

My holiday shopping adventures and Amazon’s continued retail dominance

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2017

French drone company Parrot recently announced significant layoffs and will shift focus away from their recreational drone business.

French company Parrot has had a rough year and missed its sales expectations. That’s why the company will lay off 290 employees who were working on drones. In total, Parrot currently has 840 employees on the drone team and more than a thousand employees in total.

While the company isn’t just selling drones, it represents a good chunk of the business. But it looks like other companies, such as DJI, are doing better in this market. Parrot expected to report $105.9 million in sales for 2016. It reported $90 million instead (€85 million vs. €100 million expected).

Even though the company is still selling quite a few drones, Parrot says that it doesn’t generate healthy margins. So here’s the new plan: focusing on commercial drones.

Well, this explains my holiday shopping difficulties with Parrot. Ollie asked for a drone for Christmas and after doing some research, I decided on the Parrot Swing. Amazon was out of stock, so I decided to buy directly from Parrot. They had stock and the site said they’d ship in plenty of time for Xmas. So I ordered one. The next day, I get a call from Parrot saying I need to “verify my order”. So, I call them back, give them some info about my order and where it’s being shipped and the very nice woman on the phone tells me that I’m all set and they’re shipping it out.

Two days go by, no shipping confirmation email in sight. I get another voicemail: you need to call us to verify your order. I call back, give them the same info and tell them, oh by the way I’ve already done this once. Profuse apologies were offered, that was a mistake, and the very nice woman on the phone tells me she’s going to tell the shipping people to send out my order “right away”. It will still arrive in time for Xmas. The next day I get an email from Parrot:

Hello! We have refunded your order No. XXXXX-XXXXX placed 12/15/2016. We are sorry that your order did not meet your expectations and hope that you will visit us again.

Obviously, I am done with them at this point but still need that drone. Amazon is still out of stock, but Walmart has them. I order one, it arrives two days later (with free shipping), and on Christmas morning, after some reflection, Ollie says it was the best present Santa has ever gotten him.

I did quite a bit of holiday shopping this year…went a bit nuts making up for some not-so-great efforts the past two years. The kids and I shopped for Toys for Tots (twice), I bought gifts for them from me and from Santa, I bought non-holiday stuff like clothes for myself,1 and I shopped virtually for the gift guide. I shopped every which way: small, locally, at big box stores, and online at 4-5 different retailers. My main takeaway from that experience? Amazon is miles and miles and miles ahead of everyone else. It is not even close.

Sure, Walmart had the drone in stock, but when I’d tried shopping with them earlier in the month, the product page threw a 404 error. I switched to Safari and was able to put the item into my cart, but then a form in the ordering flow wouldn’t work, so I had to get that item elsewhere. (When I did finally create an account while ordering the drone, Walmart thought my name was “Ashley”?!)

Target’s site was so slow that it was nearly unusable (like 30-40 seconds for a product page to start loading). But I persevered because they had an item I really wanted that no one else had in stock. I got an email two days before Xmas saying they were out of stock and couldn’t ship until Jan 4 at the earliest, but that if I still wanted the item, I would have to log in to my account to verify the new shipping date. I didn’t want the item later, so I did nothing. Guess what arrived on my doorstep last week?

My troubles with Parrot I shared above. The local toy stores are expensive (Lego sets are $5-10 more than if you buy online) and ran out of popular items 2-3 weeks before Xmas. Very few online stores outside Amazon, Walmart, etc. had clear holiday shipping policies, so relying on them more than a week or two out was risky. Zappos was great (Amazon owns them) and Patagonia was pretty good, although their shipping estimates aren’t that great and returns aren’t free.

And Amazon? The site is always fast, I have never seen a 404’d product page, the URLs for their products haven’t changed in almost 20 years,1 each product page was clearly marked with holiday shipping information, they showed the number of items in stock if they were running low, shipping was free (b/c I’m a Prime member), returns are often free, and the items arrived on time as promised. More than 20 years after the invention of online retailing, how is it that Amazon seems to be the only one that’s figured all this out? How come massive companies like Walmart and Target, whose very businesses are under immense pressure from Amazon, can’t get this stuff right despite having spent hundreds of millions on it? I’m not a financial analyst, but unless something changes drastically, Amazon is just going to continue to eat more and more of the US retail pie and at this point, with all these advantages they’ve accrued and their razor-sharp focus on low pricing, it’s difficult to see how anyone is going to compete.1

  1. After freezing my ass off wearing improper clothing the last few years (because, to be clear, I am an idiot), I made myself a promise this year that I was not going to be cold this winter. So in November and December, I spent a bunch of energy outfitting myself with the proper gear: sweaters, thermal layers, coats, mittens, boots, etc. I am both warm and happy now.

  2. I linked to the Office Space DVD on kottke.org in 1999 and the link still works. What’s the percentage of URLs from 1999 that still work? 5%? 2%? 0.1%?

  3. Just for fun, let’s take a quick stab. Stripe and Shopify are arguably better than Amazon in some ways and when the one-click patent expires this year, those payment flows will get even easier. And anyone can use them to sell anything. So the problem becomes stocking and shipping. Who’s going to build/provide the third-party fulfillment infrastructure so that shipping and returns are cheap and reliable…like Amazon’s fulfillment warehouses but for anyone to use? UPS? FedEx? The USPS? (Hahaha.) Uber? Can that company offer a Prime-like or Costco-like shipping membership? What is the rationale for everyone involved (the retailers, the payment company, the online store service, the fulfillment company) to keep prices as relentlessly low as Amazon does? There are a lot of different reasons why a collection of interchangeable third-party services could succeed against a fully integrated solution, but price does not seem like one of them…there’s just too much margin lost because of the friction between services.

    (And we haven’t even talked about AWS here. It’s profitable by itself but is also turning out to be a massive competitive advantage. The likes of Walmart and Target can’t use it even if it would be better than their home-grown infrastructure because that’s like the Trojans paying the Greeks to invade. AWS also potentially insulates Amazon against competitors like Shopify and Stripe. Imagine if Amazon got serious about integrating AWS with their payment and fulfillment systems…a low-cost, bulletproof, integrated system that almost anyone could use to sell almost anything would put an enormous amount of pressure on every other retail experience, particularly if they continue to ramp up their real-world retail offerings.)

We Work Remotely

Our tiny autonomous killer drone future

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2016

The very beginning of Attack of the Killer Robots by Sarah Topol features this quote by Stuart Russell, a Berkeley computer science professor. It is terrifying:

A very, very small quadcopter, one inch in diameter can carry a one- or two-gram shaped charge. You can order them from a drone manufacturer in China. You can program the code to say: “Here are thousands of photographs of the kinds of things I want to target.” A one-gram shaped charge can punch a hole in nine millimeters of steel, so presumably you can also punch a hole in someone’s head. You can fit about three million of those in a semi-tractor-trailer. You can drive up I-95 with three trucks and have 10 million weapons attacking New York City. They don’t have to be very effective, only 5 or 10% of them have to find the target.

There will be manufacturers producing millions of these weapons that people will be able to buy just like you can buy guns now, except millions of guns don’t matter unless you have a million soldiers. You need only three guys to write the program and launch them. So you can just imagine that in many parts of the world humans will be hunted. They will be cowering underground in shelters and devising techniques so that they don’t get detected. This is the ever-present cloud of lethal autonomous weapons.

They could be here in two to three years.

Who needs a hug?

Drone footage of a Syrian city destroyed by war

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2016

Until recently, the Syrian city of Homs was the country’s third largest, with an estimated population of more than 800,000. As you can see from this drone footage, The Siege of Homs left much of the city destroyed and its population displaced.

If you scroll down in this Guardian piece, there’s a photo showing what a Homs street looked like before and after the siege. (via @alexismadrigal)

Update: A pair of newlyweds recently posed for some wedding portraits in war-ravaged Homs. Bad idea or the worst idea?

A drone, an architect, and a tourist walk into a bar

posted by Susannah Breslin   Dec 23, 2015

Drones have spawned the architectural tourist who can fly over buildings, dive through doorways, and sail down hallways without ever leaving his or her home. Curbed has a nice collection of architectural-tourism-by-drone videos. The subjects include Tesla’s Gigafactory, Apple Campus 2, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, which isn’t far from Wright’s Ennis House, which served as Deckard’s apartment in “Blade Runner.”

Artificial Killing Machine

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2015

Artificial Killing Machine

Artificial Killing Machine is an art installation that listens to a public database on US military drone strikes. When there’s a strike, a cap gun fires for every death.

This time based work accesses a public database on U.S. military drone strikes. When a drone strike occurs, the machine activates, and fires a children’s toy cap gun for every death that results. The raw information used by the installation is then printed. The materialized data is allowed to accumulate in perpetuity or until the life cycle of either the database or machine ends. A single chair is placed beneath the installation inviting the viewers to sit in the chair and experience the imagined existential risk.

The goal of the project is to breathe humanity back into data:

When individuals are represented purely as statistical data, they are stripped of their humanity and our connection to them is severed. Through the act of play and the force of imagination, this project aims to reconnect that which has been lost.

(via prosthetic knowledge)

Beautiful: an aerial drone tour of the 5 boroughs of NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2015

This is a great aerial tour (by drone) of all five boroughs of New York.

I bet the Coast Guard boats equipped with the scary-looking machine guns didn’t take kindly to a drone shadowing the Staten Island Ferry. (via @anildash)

Don’t Fly Drones Here

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2014

Drones Nofly Map

From Mapbox, a map of places in the US where it is unsafe or illegal to fly drones. Forbidden areas include near airports and in National Parks. (via @tcarmody)

Aerial drone video of New York

posted by Aaron Cohen   Apr 18, 2014

Drone Week on Kottke continues with this beautiful drone video of NYC from Randy Scott Slavin.

I found two more videos and a bunch of stories about a drone crashing a crime scene last year. (thx, noah)

Dronies!

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2014

A dronie is a video selfie taken with a drone. I featured Amit Gupta’s beautiful dronie yesterday:

Other people have since taken dronies of their own and the idea seems like it’s on the cusp of becoming a thing. Here’s one taken by Joshua Works of him and his family on the shore of a lake in Nevada:

The Works clan sold most of their worldly possessions in 2011 and has been travelling the US in an Airstream ever since, logging more than 75,000 miles so far.

Adam Lisagor took this dronie of him and fellow drone enthusiast Alex Cornell standing on the roof of a building in LA:

Adam was inspired to begin playing with drone photography because of Alex’s recent video on Our Drone Future.

Have you taken a dronie? Let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

Update: Jakob Lodwick reversed Amit’s dronie from a pull back shot to a Spielbergesque close-up. This reel from Antimedia begins with a dronie. Steffan van Esch took a group dronie. This video opens with a quick dronie. I like this one from Taylor Scott Mason, if only for the F1-like whine of the receding drone:

Here’s a Powers of Ten-inspired dronie that combines a Google Earth zoom-in with drone-shot footage covering the last few hundred feet:

Adam Lisagor wrote a bit about drone photography and how photographers always come back to the human subject, no matter what format the camera takes:

There’s a reason that you’re going to see a lot of these from drone flyers like me, and it’s this: once you get past the novelty of taking a camera high up in the air, getting a bird’s eye view of stuff is actually a little boring.

What birds see is actually a little boring. Humans are interesting. Getting close to stuff is interesting. I bet if we could strap tiny cameras to bird heads, most of what we’d want to look at would happen when they fly close to people. If we could, we’d put cameras on bird heads to take pictures of ourselves.

The company that Amit runs, Photojojo, is going to start doing rentals soon, including kits for drone photography. And they’re gonna do flying lessons as well. For now, there’s a tutorial on the page about how to make “the perfect dronie”. (thx to everyone who sent in videos)

Update: More dronies from David Chicarelli, SkyCamUSA, and Bob Carey.

Update: From Joshua Works, a pair of new dronies, including one shot from a moving vehicle:

What a great way to record his family’s travels.

Update: DroneBooth is a drone photobooth project from a quartet of ITP students.

Drone selfies

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2014

For the past couple of months, Amit Gupta has been playing around with taking moving self-portraits with a camera mounted on a drone. Here’s an early effort. This past weekend, Amit’s efforts crossed over into the realm of art. This is beautiful:

In the comments at Vimeo, Alex Dao dubbed this type of photograph a “dronie”. We’ll see if that catches on.

Update: More examples of dronies here.

Drones on demand

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2014

Gofor imagines a future world where drones are cheap and ubiquitous. What sorts of things would we have personal drones do for us? Follow us home in unsafe neighborhoods? Personal traffic copters? Travel location scouting?

How long before someone uses a personal drone for the same purpose as the US government? Just think how easy and untraceable it would be to outfit a drone with a weapon, shoot someone, and then dump the drone+weapon in a lake or ocean. When it happens, the reaction will be predictable: ban personal drones. Guns don’t kill people, drones kill people, right?

Amazon Prime Air

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2013

You’re probably sick of this news already, but Amazon says they’re working on 30-minute package delivery by drone.

The goal of this new delivery system is to get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.

Putting Prime Air into commercial use will take some number of years as we advance the technology and wait for the necessary FAA rules and regulations.

Back in January, riffing off a piece by John Robb, I speculated that Amazon would be an early mover into delivery-by-drone:

More likely that Amazon will buy a fledgling drone delivery company in the next year or two and begin rolling out same-day delivery of items weighing less than 2 pounds in non-urban areas where drone flights are permitted.

Tyler Cowen is already out of the gate this morning talking about the economics of drone delivery:

You would buy smaller size packages and keep smaller libraries at home and in your office. Bookshelf space would be freed up, you would cook more with freshly ground spices, the physical world would stand a better chance of competing with the rapid-delivery virtual world, and Amazon Kindles would decline in value.

But for now, Amazon Prime Air sure is providing lots of Cyber Monday PR for Amazon.

Sign of the times: a lost drone poster

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2013

Looks like someone lost their drone in the West Village:

Lost Drone Poster

Pretty sure that drones falling from the skies in heavily populated metropolitan areas is going to lead to banning.

The anti-drone hoodie

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2013

Designer Adam Harvey, who gave the world the anti-paparazzi purse and dazzle camouflage for the face, has developed a hoodie that makes the wearer invisible to the sort of thermal imaging utilized by surveillance drones.

Anti Drone Hoodie

This is the most New Aesthetic thing I have ever seen. The Guardian has more:

“These are primarily fashion items and art items,” Harvey tells me. “I’m not trying to make products for survivalists. I would like to introduce this idea to people: that surveillance is not bulletproof. That there are ways to interact with it and there are ways to aestheticise it.”

I imagine that at some point, anti-drone clothing will eject chaff as a countermeasure against incoming drone-launched missiles. (via @DavidGrann)

The Dronenet

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2013

John Robb imagines a drone delivery service that will replace UPS, FedEx, the USPS, bicycle messengers, Kozmo-type services, etc. in the short-hop delivery of small items.

Here’s a simplified version of what I’m talking about:

1. I put package onto a landing pad at my home.

2. Drone arrives, takes package and flies away.

3. Drone delivers package to landing pad at delivery location.

There’s almost nothing technically in the way of this happening right now. Here’s how it would work in practice:

- My brother left his iphone at my house. I want to get it to him, but he lives 30 mi away (as the crow flies, 50 by driving).

- I put it into a delivery container and put it on a small landing pad outside my home.

- I order a drone on my phone and put the ID of the container into the order (I could just as easily use a drone I buy to do it P2P).

- A drone arrives 10 minutes later, picks up the container automatically.

- After a couple of hops, it arrives at my brother’s landing pad, where it drops off the container and alerts him with an e-mail/text.

- Costs? Probably less than $0.25 per 10 mi. or so. So, about $0.75 in this instance. Time? An hour or so.

This is a compelling idea but I doubt it’ll happen in a decentralized way. More likely that Amazon will buy a fledgling drone delivery company in the next year or two and begin rolling out same-day delivery of items weighing less than 2 pounds in non-urban areas where drone flights are permitted. Unless the FAA or Homeland Security gets in the way, which they might. But if not, Wal-Mart, Target, and everyone else will follow suit, including (likely too late) FedEx and UPS.