The last time I wrote about Amazon Prime Air was almost 2 years ago to the day and back then it seemed to be little more than a flight of fancy. Back then drones, whilst still being somewhat commonplace, were still something of an emerging space especially when it came to regulations and companies making use of them. Indeed the idea instantly ran afoul of the FAA, something which Amazon was surprisingly blase about at the time. Still there had been musings of them continuing development of the program and today they’ve shown off another prototype drone that they might use in the future.
The drone is an interesting beast, capable of both VTOL and regular flight. This was most likely done to increase the effective range of the craft as traditional flight is a lot less energy intensive than 100% VTOL flight. The new prototype drone has a stated range of 16 miles (about 25KM) which you’d probably have to cut in half for the return trip. Whilst that’s likely an order of magnitude above the previous prototype they showcased 2 years ago it still means that a serviced based on them will either be very limited or Amazon is planning a massive shakeup of its distribution network.
Of course the timing of this announcement (and the accompanying video below) mere hours before the yearly Cyber Monday sale starts in earnest can’t be denied. Amazon Prime Air is undeniably a marketing tactic, one that’s worked well enough in the past to warrant them trying it again in order to boost sales on this day. On the flip side Amazon does seem pretty committed to the idea, with their various proposals for airspace usage and “dozens of prototypes” in the works, however until they start offering the service to real customers it’s going to be easy to remain skeptical.
Last time I wrote about Amazon Prime Air one of my local readers mentioned that a similar service was looking to take off here in Australia. The offering was going to be a joint effort between Flirtey, a delivery drone developer, and Zookal a local text book sale and rent service. They were targeting mid last year for their first delivery by drone however that never came to pass. Indeed an article earlier this year was all I could dredge up on the service where they still have yet to use the service commercially. To their credit Flirtey did make the first drone delivery in the USA in July this year so the technology is there it just needs to be put to use.
Whether or not something like this will see widespread adoption however is something I’m still not sure on. Right now the centralized distribution models that most companies employ simply don’t work with the incredibly limited range that most drones have. Even if the range issue could be solved I’m still not sure if it would be economical to use them, unless the delivery fees were substantially higher (and then how many customers would pay for that?). Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’d be incredibly cool to get something delivered by drone, but at this point I’m still not 100% sold on the idea that it can be done economically.
Cancer drugs are, to be honest, a club being used where a scalpel is needed. Most modern chemotherapy treatments hinge on the principle that certain drugs will kill the cancer quicker than the patient as their indiscriminate nature makes no distinction between fast growing cancer cells and regular ones. Thus any form of treatment that can either reduce the amount of drugs used or get them to target cancer cells specifically is keenly researched as they can drastically improve the quality of life of the patient whilst increasing overall effectiveness. Such improvements are few and far between and rarely come hand in hand. A new development, coming off the back of the “unboiled” egg research announced earlier this year, however may improve both fronts for current cancer treatments.
The initial research, which I refrained from writing on at the time, is pretty interesting even if the headlines don’t exactly match the reality. Essentially the researchers, based out of University of California (Irvine Campus) and chemists within Australia, have developed a process to take cooked egg protein and revert part of it back to its original form. The process they do this with is rather interesting and begins with them liquefying the egg using an urea based substance. This now liquid cooked egg, which at a protein level is still all tangled up, is then put into a machine called a vortex fluidic device (VFD) which applies an incredible amount of shear force to those proteins. This forces the proteins to untangle themselves and return to their original form. While this might sound like a whole lot of nothing it essentially allows for the mass manufacture of proteins that aren’t jumbled or misfolded which are invaluable to many areas of research.
More recent research however has employed the use of this device in conjunction with a widely used cancer drug, carboplatin. Carboplatin was introduced some 30 years ago and is favoured due to its reduced and more manageable side effects when compared to drugs that use a similar method of action. However that reduced effectiveness means that a higher dosage is required to achieve the same level of treatment, on the order of 4 times or so. Carboplatin is also a stable drug which doesn’t break down as rapidly as other drugs do, however this also means that it can readily pass through the body with up to 90% of the dosage being recoverable from a patient’s urine. Using the VFD however has the potential to change that dramatically.
The same researchers behind the original discovery have used the VFD to embed carboplatin in molecules that are called lipid mimics which are powerful antioxidants. This has done through previous methods however the use of the VFD has increased the rate at which the drug was embedded in the mimics, from 17% to 75%. This means that the drug will be about 4 times as effective in delivering its payload, allowing doctors to significantly reduce the amount used to achieve the same results. This will dramatically improve patient’s quality of life through better outcomes and significantly reduce side effects. Such a process could also be applied to other treatments as the lipid mimics are capable of storing water soluble active agents as well.
It might not be the most headline grabbing title however it has the potential to significantly increase the effectiveness of current cancer treatments whilst keeping the patient’s quality of life high. Like all improvements it’s likely going to be specific to certain treatments and types of cancer however it will likely lead onto further research that will hopefully improve all areas of cancer research.
If you haven’t been deliberately avoiding mainstream media for the past couple days then chances are you’re already aware of Amazon’s latest announcement in Amazon Prime Air. It sounds like the world of science fiction, being able to place an order for something and then have it delivered by an automated right to your door in under 30 minutes. Indeed it pretty much is for the time being as whilst there seems to be a large amount of foundational work done on it the service is still many years away from seeing actual use. So this has had many asking the question: why would Amazon bother announcing something like this when its so far away form being a reality?
As many have already rightly pointed out the timing of the announcement seems to point towards it being an elaborate marketing campaign with Amazon managing to snag a good 15 minutes of advertising, ostensibly for free, from the 60 minutes program. This happening right before Cyber Monday is too much of a coincidence for it to be anything other than planned so, at least for the short term, Amazon Prime Air is a marketing tactic to get people to shop at Amazon. I’d hesitate to give credence to the theory that it’s been done to remediate Jeff Bezos image though as those rumours about his personality have been swirling for ages and I’d be astonished if he wasn’t aware of them already.
However the one thing that this idea has going for it is that Bezos is behind it and this isn’t the first wild gamble he’s undertaken in recent memory. Back in 2000 he founded Blue Origin a private space company focused on human spaceflight. Whilst it hasn’t made the headlines like its competition has it’s still managed to do a handful of test flights and has worked in conjunction with NASA on its Commercial Crew Development Program. Whilst this is a worlds away from flying drones to deliver products it does show that Bezos is willing to commit funding over a long period of time to see something achieved. Though this still leaves the question of why he made the announcement so soon unanswered.
For what its worth I think the reasoning behind it is to get the public talking about it now so that there’ll be some momentum behind the idea when it comes time for Amazon to start talking with legislators about how this system is going to work. If the FAA was anything to go by such a system wouldn’t see the light of day for another 13 years or so. Whilst it’s definitely not ready for prime time yet due to the numerous technical challenges it has yet to overcome it’s unlikely that they will take that long to solve. Putting the screws to politicians in this way means that Amazon doesn’t have to spend as much money on direct lobbying or convincing the public that it’s a good idea.
As for me personally I think it’s a nifty idea however its application is likely going to be horribly limited, especially in locations outside of the USA. A quick glance over this map reveals just how many locations Amazon has in various countries (don’t be fooled by those 2 locations in Australia, they’re just corporate offices) and since their drones need to launch from one of the fulfilment sites you can see how small a range this kind of service will have. Of course they can always widen this by increasing the number of distribution centres they have but that’s antithetical to their current way of doing business. It’s a challenge that can be overcome, to be sure, however I just don’t see it getting much air time (ha!) outside of major capital cities, especially in non-USA countries.
I’d love to be proven wrong on this however as the lazy introvert inside me loves not having to do anything to get stuff that I want and the instant gratification such a service would provide is just the icing on the cake. However it’s unlikely to see the light of day for several years from now and likely the better part of a decade before it comes to Australia so I’m not exactly hanging out for it. I think the idea has some merit though although whether that will be enough to carry it on as a viable business process will be something that only time will be able to reveal to us.
You’d think that with my time spent as a retail worker I’d have some sense of loyalty to real world shop fronts, knowing that there’s value in a good salesperson’s opinion on what product best suits my needs. There’s something to that and indeed should I find myself out of my depth or simply not wanting to do the research myself I’ll head on into the store but my primary means for conducting my shopping is still via online merchants. Whilst its hard to argue the convenience factor of the majority of the experience the last mile delivery system is somewhat lacklustre, usually requiring me to either truck out to a depot, abscond from work early or hope that my darling wife will be able to break herself away from her studies so the goods can be delivered.
Before anyone suggests getting it delivered to my work I’ll have to say that my experience in doing so has been rather mixed. In the past I had had places where the delivery guys came right up to our reception desks to deliver things and this worked great. However as I graduated to bigger and better places that had delivery docks my lowly deliveries often got lost in the works, sometimes for days on end, with no way for me to track them. Thus I’ve since refrained from using them as at least when I get them delivered to my home I’ll either still have tracking from the courier or a note from Australia Post telling me where to pick it up. However if the latest innovation from Australia Post has anything to do with it I might need not rely on either of those processes again thanks to the introduction of Parcel Lockers.
For the uninitiated Parcel Lockers are a free service from Australia Post. You sign up for one at their website, select the location where you’d like your parcels delivered to and you’ll receive a shipping address which you can have your packages delivered to. Then when your package arrives you’ll receive a SMS with a code in it and you can then go to the locker in question and retrieve your package. Initially they were only available in a few select locations, the middle of Canberra being one of them, but they’ve since spread to other mid to large sized post offices although their availability at postal locations is still not ubiquitous.
After forgetting that I had signed up for one for the better part of 3 months I finally decided to give them a go to see how the process would pan out. I figured I’d keep it simple so I ordered a book from Book Depository that I’ve been eyeing off for ages (Critical Path if you’re wondering, and yes I’m trying to do exactly that) so that if I didn’t get it there’d be no great loss. About 2 weeks after placing the order I got my message saying a parcel was ready for me to pick up. Picking it up was painless, just punch in the code and the parcel locker opens for you, the screen even tells you where to look if it’s that hard for you to notice it opening. That’s it, nothing more to it.
Of course there are some limitations to this service as you can see from the picture above. You can’t get anything you want delivered to them as they don’t have sizes to accommodate everything and I’d hazard a guess that they’d send you a message to come collect it from somewhere else should you attempt to do so. Additionally since these are obviously at something of a premium they’ll get aggressive should you fail to pick it up swiftly (I forgot to get mine on the day and was told to pick it up 2 business days later before the afternoon). The simple solution to this is to get more of them something which Australia Post appears to be doing.
Ultimately what I’d love to have would be my very own parcel locker style device at my house that deliveries could be made to. I’d be happy to pay for the privilege too as the amount of convenience it would deliver would exceed even that of the current parcel lockers. However I’d likely be just as happy if my local post office had one as whilst this is somewhat convenient it’s only just above going to my local post office since I don’t live anywhere near to one of these (and indeed only recently started working in walking distance to one). Unfortunately they don’t seem to have a roadmap available as to when these will become available in other locations but I can’t imagine this is something they’ll want to limit just to the bigger distribution centres.