by Coop Cooper
As publicity for its ‘Cyber Monday’ holiday sale, Amazon.com announced a ‘Prime Air’ service which will use aerial drones to deliver packages to customers. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claimed the delivery ‘octocopters’ (a helicopter drone with eight motorized propellers) should be ready to deploy in four or five years within a ten-mile radius of any of their distribution centers, for compact packages up to five pounds. Theoretically, this would allow for quick, thirty minute deliveries for limited items within major metropolitan areas. It’s a neat idea, but highly unlikely it will ever happen. Here’s why…
Technological limitations: While non-military drones have made made massive leaps forward in the past few years, there are many things they can’t do, especially while automated. Robot drones currently fly using GPS satellites to determine location and altitude. While this is very advanced and accurate they can’t avoid things like trees, power lines, other aircraft, humans an other obstructions without a pilot intervening.
Legalities/liabilities: Five to ten pounds of flying metal and plastic, guided by GPS that can malfunction, powered by motors that can fail, batteries that aren’t always reliable (usually no more than 20 minutes flight-time) and bad weather can create a hazard of falling objects that can potentially hurt property and people. Automated drones falling onto crowded sidewalks, crashing into car windshields and getting sucked into low-flying plane propellers/engines might be rare at first, but more common as their usage increases. This would be a legal and PR nightmare for Amazon, especially if an employee gets caught using a company drone camera to spy on people or conduct other illegal activities.
Federal laws: Bezos is working with the Federal Aviation Administration and other government entities to pave the way for legal use of commercial drones – projected for 2015. Despite some loopholes for small businesses, drones aren’t currently cleared for commercial use and while Bezos and many other companies are trailblazing this new business solution, they may also be hastening its demise. A fleet of autonomous commercial drones crowding the skies could cause so many legal issues (safety, privacy, noise, etc…) the government would have no choice but to create strict new laws and drastically regulate drone use.
Loss of property: Animals HATE drones, especially dogs. Copter drones have the sound profile of a weed-eater and the dogs who don’t cower and run away from a landing drone may attack and rip them to pieces. It sounds far-fetched but I’ve actually seen a dog attack and destroy a drone first hand. Vandals and thieves could steal drones landing for deliveries and others might shoot them down for flying over their property. Amazon would no doubt suffer a loss of many units.
Terrorism: Eventually, criminals and terrorists will probably learn how to use commercial-grade drones to spy, commit crimes and deliver bombs on American soil. That alone might bring all commercial, and possibly even recreational drone use to a screeching halt.
Federal/local government abuse: Despite how effectively drones could be used for search and rescue, security and reconnaissance, any abuses of this technology by official means will be scrutinized by the media and used as political ammunition against their use.
What drones ARE good for: While law enforcement might seem like the most obvious practical application, agriculture, surveying, engineering and scientific research are also projected to become a leading users of drone technology. If a farmer can send an automated drone out using GPS waypoints to inspect crops, equipment and wildlife, it could save time and money (plus, wide open fields are perfect for drone flying).
Few people know this, but I’ve been training to manually fly ‘quadcopter’ drones for the past few months and I now operate a drone for taking high-quality aerial videos and still pictures. Filmmaking is one of the leading uses for consumer/commercial-grade aerial drones and I’m glad to be getting in on it early. Not only that, it’s a lot of fun and even youngsters can get in on it. Small, recreational ‘toy’ training drones can be found on Amazon for as low as $30.