Should drones be used for data collection in addition to deliveries?

Source: Amazon video
Aug 17, 2017
Matthew Stern

While delivery services and regulators are still trying to figure out the details of safe drone delivery, is already thinking about what data the drones can collect while dropping off packages.

Amazon has patented technology that allows a drone to scan and collect data from houses it passes on its flight path, according to Inc. Among the hypothetical uses for the technology are notifying customers about a damaged roof on their home or recommending a service to attend to sick-looking trees in a yard. The patent suggests text, email and on-site notification as viable ways to communicate the findings to the customer.

It’s not clear where the lines should be drawn in terms of privacy. If a truck drove by collecting information about individual homes and contacting the inhabitants, for instance, that might set off some red flags. People do seem, however, to have grown accustomed to the use of photographs of their properties on websites like Google Maps.

It’s not hard to imagine this technology collecting more in-depth data at the point of drop-off or even by peering through windows, or delivering recommendations based on fly-by data to in-home Alexa devices.

Since the idea of last-mile delivery by drone entered the public mind, Amazon has continued to churn out high-concept drone-related patents. Some of its other concepts are a beehive-style structure to house idle drones and using trains as mobile maintenance and launching stations.

Drone research beyond Amazon is also pushing the technology in new directions. Researchers at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada, for instance, recently created a drone capable of landing on and taking off from vertical surfaces like walls. Such an innovation could offer a new solution for the problem of where drones could “park” when between deliveries.

And other companies, especially delivery services, have been taking strides in drone delivery innovation as well. Earlier this year, UPS began testing a delivery truck that doubles as a mobile drone base.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see potential in Amazon and others using drones as data collection vehicles? What types of data would be acceptable to collect? At what point would you draw the line?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"As with other personal data and privacy debates, I suspect this will come down to the value exchange."
"This industry already exists. Amazon is not necessarily creating a new invasive service."
"The drone discussion continues to baffle me. Stores and brands are struggling to deliver on basic supply chain, inventory and customer service issues."

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18 Comments on "Should drones be used for data collection in addition to deliveries?"

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Mark Ryski

While surveillance is becoming an increasingly normal part of our everyday lives, I think this crosses the line on privacy. Collecting data related to the purchase or regarding the successful delivery of the purchase is reasonable, but to have drones capturing images of everything it sees and then turning this information into sales opportunities under the guise of public service or helpful suggestions is going too far. I think Amazon and other companies are running far ahead of the legal oversight that should be required for this type of data gathering.

Ken Lonyai

I believe this nothing more than the Amazon hype cycle, keeping the brand in the headlines. Theoretically, this is a great idea, but there is so much distance between reality and theory, that it’s almost silly. One basic assumption is that customers want Amazon evaluating their life needs from every direction and selling them anything they need including roof repair and hedge trimming. Time will tell, but I don’t buy it.

Ralph Jacobson

If the data is presented in ways that are not “creepy” then apprehensions may be avoided if this technology gets out to the public. Beyond that, from an internal business intelligence perspective, the insights opportunity for this technology is immense.

Cathy Hotka

Things I’m pretty sure I don’t want to hear from Amazon:

  • “Your car needs to be washed.”
  • “That third bush on the right needs some fertilizer. We have some for $8.99.”
  • “Your tomato plants need some bigger cages. Try ours for $11.99 each.”
  • “We at Amazon have noticed that you haven’t been barbecuing a lot this summer. Try our summer-friendly steaks!”
Art Suriano

I can see drones being used to collect data and I can also see the need for legislation controlling what can and cannot be allowed. But can such laws be enforced? I am thinking of all the “do not call” lists we have registered with today and yet we still have telemarketers that penetrate through; now with gimmicky pre-recorded messages. So as drones become the norm, what will consumers need to do to protect themselves? Will we read about the angry customer who shot down a drone hovering over his property? It is hard to say, but technology developers need to be prepared for many consumer issues as they introduce their data collecting services.

With every new technology, there are always benefits as well as issues the public and the government will have to deal with and then decide on what should and should not be allowed.

Adrian Weidmann

The drone discussion continues to baffle me. Stores and brands are struggling to deliver on basic supply chain, inventory and customer service issues in today’s landscape. It seems like Amazon is using the drone issue to keep us busy and misguided while they quietly pursue another tack. One issue that people don’t mention about drones — have you ever heard the noise a drone makes? It’s loud! Like the sound of 1,000 mosquitoes in your ear. If drones filled our skies, they would surpass every community noise regulation. Are they fun to talk about? Yes. Are they a pragmatic solution to what ails retail? NO.

Brandon Rael

Data is naturally the modern day version of oil, and with it comes great knowledge. Yet as we all know, knowledge is power and will drive significant insights.

This version of data collection, without any user intervention or approval cycles, is concerning. We are all welcoming and interested in Amazon’s relentless innovation machine, as its driving the friction-less experiences we are all expecting. However this particular data collection strategy may prove to be a bit more creepy and intrusive than what we could be comfortable with.

Sunny Kumar

As with other personal data and privacy debates, I suspect this will come down to the value exchange. The value of what Amazon can offer customers in exchange for gathering the data in the first place. There are many community level services they could deliver, from live neighborhood watch to recommending other relevant products and services. If these are positioned in the right way this could be yet another revenue stream we can’t do without.

Steve Montgomery

The issue for me is that someone may have seen the value in allowing Amazon to use this data and agreed to let them. However the drone is collecting data from others who may not have agreed. If I buy some items from Amazon so they have my contact information that does not mean that I grant them permission to contact me about something that a drone on its way to someone else’s house happen to gather on my property.

Steve Montgomery

A satellite taking pictures from space is one thing. A drone flying 50 to 100 feet above a house or business capturing data on its way to or from doing something is another. This is especially true if that information is used by Amazon or provided to a third party who contacts the homeowner to sell them a service. Don’t we all get too many nuisance calls as it is?

Cristian Grossmann

Drone data collection is useful in certain cases, like commercial properties and stadiums that require a lot of maintenance from a big team, but collecting personal data in suburban areas crosses the line. You shouldn’t be worried about being watched all hours of the day and getting emails about the status of your house and yard. I see fewer legal and privacy issues with commercial properties.

Jett McCandless

Moral considerations aside, there’s massive potential in this for Amazon. Amazon can leverage information about your vehicles, the exterior of your home and any property visible from the outside, and use that to market related products to people. They can even obtain information about when people are home, when they are outside, etc. There’s no telling what other ideas they’ll come up with as they bring in rounds of data and begin analyzing it.

That said, one has to wonder where it ends. I don’t think you’ll ever get people to feel comfortable with drones taking pictures of them, or their children, during fly-overs. I think people should have the option to opt out of any sort of drone-related data collection, though that would be extremely difficult to enforce. It’s going to require quite a lot of legislation.

gordon arnold

Collecting, storing and managing data is expensive and cost recovery for these efforts is difficult to establish as a need for any company. It is not a bad idea to exploit the latest proven technologies the company owns or is putting in place but addressing known market needs is a safer investment than speculation.

Neil Saunders

On a theoretical level, I find this kind of idea fascinating! On a personal level, I find it creepy — even if I can see some practical benefit in being told my roof is damaged and will leak come winter. This dilemma can only be solved if these services are offered on a strictly opt-in basis, and customers have control.

In many ways, the technology is irrelevant. This is about morals and standards. If a UPS driver started snooping around our homes and taking pictures, most people would be horrified and would complain or call the police. A drone doing that is no different.

Dan Frechtling

This may be more of a B2B play than B2C.

Aerial residential information can be used for lead generation for construction, remodeling, landscaping, and even insurance claims. Such geographic data is fragmented right now, so Amazon’s ability to fill in the gaps and provide up to the minute information provides an advantage when paired with archives from existing aerial imagery companies.

This industry already exists. Amazon is not necessarily creating a new invasive service. But as usual, Amazon can choose to complement it or disrupt it.

Kai Clarke

The collection of data from cars, drones, satellites, planes, etc. has already been done. Ask any realtor. Integrating this data, as a drone makes a delivery, seems to be an obvious “yes” for Amazon to do, so that their information becomes current, complete and reliable. This also gives Amazon an up to date “edge” in managing their logistics, as well as their competitors (like Walmart/jet).

Craig Sundstrom

I don’t normally comment on the Amazon stories anymore, but since this one was snuck in … oh by all means, take an unproven idea that many of us think is little more than PR fodder and give everyone an idea to hate it. Expect preemptive legislation/regulation to prohibit this before it gets off the ground — pun intended — and we’ll all just have to look after our own roofs.

Ricardo Belmar
There could be tremendous service/business potential for Amazon in both commercial and residential applications but let’s face it, there a number of significant privacy concerns as well. I suspect this is Amazon’s excellent PR machine causing us to continually discuss their drone developments, but how close to reality are all of these ideas? I think the gap to bring these drone related ideas to fruition is much larger than we think. You could almost gauge how close to “readiness” Amazon is with new technology based on how high the “noise-level” is coming from them. The more hype/news we get, the further away from ready it is. How much advance notice did we have for the Echo Look? Will people want service information from Amazon about something a drone sees during a flyby? I’m not so sure. I don’t believe people are ready for Alexa to wake up telling them they need to call a roof repair man because the drone that delivered their last package saw a problem. Eventually, yes, I think the right happy… Read more »
"As with other personal data and privacy debates, I suspect this will come down to the value exchange."
"This industry already exists. Amazon is not necessarily creating a new invasive service."
"The drone discussion continues to baffle me. Stores and brands are struggling to deliver on basic supply chain, inventory and customer service issues."

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