Drones—threat or menace?

Wait, what drones? Well, for starters, the ones that Amazon is testing, which have a 50 mile range, and a five pound payload. All so you can get that book faster. Of course, in the US this needs approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Not only that, it requires that the FAA provide Amazon with an exemption from a bunch of regulations that currently prevent private companies from unmanned vehicle testing. Now, these might strike you as the kind of sensible regulation that you actually might want governments to enforce. The FAA, on the other hand, is currently preparing new rules that will loosen things up a bit, apparently. And if Amazon gets the approvals it wants? Get ready for “Amazon Prime Air.” Although five pounds doesn’t really seem to be a very large payload of books, or coffee, or lawn furniture, or whatever it is that’s so desperately needed from Amazon.

Just leaving aside the safety issues here (“What could possibly go wrong?”), and of course the energy efficiency angle (How do you even calculate this?), this is just the sort of thing that techno-optimists think is really neat. That probably includes Jeff Bezos himself, since Bezos, in addition to recently picking up The Washington Post, owns a bunch of Space technology stuff, presumably for quicker deliveries to some moonbase. And it’s not just Bezos. As the FT notes, “Silicon Valley interest in drones has been on the upswing. Google in April bought a company specialising in solar-powered drones to help with plans to bring internet signals to remote parts of the developing world. Facebook too this year acquired a team that developed unmanned aircraft.”

In addition to the initial concern about things dropping out of the sky, there’s another teensy aspect of this that I wonder about as well. I like to think of technological developments as responses to problems. In the case of Google, I can see trying to expand signals—maybe this will turn out to be an efficient and cost-effective way to do just that. Agricultural mapping and monitoring also comes to mind. I can, in fact, think of many useful activities for drones, as it turns out. We all can. How about zipping up and down pipelines checking for leaks, something that BP and Shell have started doing? Checking out nuclear radiation levels at nuclear power plants (as was done at Fukushima). Or delivering medical supplies to some disaster area, if we’re considering non-commercial applications, which we should be doing (and which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are currently funding a development project for). Wildlife monitoring–this might be a pretty non-intrusive way to keep track of populations in a region. Tracking wildfires or algae blooms. These seem like a reasonable use for these things, if we’re going to have them up there at all. Then there are all those law enforcement and, obviously, military uses that perhaps should be receiving more attention than they currently receive, but at least you can sort of understand why the use of drones in certain contexts might be appropriate and, perhaps, even useful. But then there are those applications that could be horrifying if actually pursued.

So just what problem is Amazon trying to solve by delivering the most recent Dan Brown hardback by drones? Faster deliveries? Honestly, who needs a book that fast? If you want it that fast, get an e-book. And as the FT notes, the FAA has already put a damper on things—it has already commented the “delivering a package for a fee” would be unacceptable as a commercial use of drones. We can’t wait to see what happens next.

But wait, there’s more. How could there not be? This concept of package deliveries has intrigued enough people that Accenture, one of the major consultancies, has already published some pieces with titles like “Will Drones take Your Most Profitable Customers?”, in which the authors point out that, well, they might, especially if you’re FedEx or UPS. And, not being shy about it, Accenture also put out a report called “It’s Time for Flying Robots.” You can see where this is going. And as Accenture points out, at least one aerospace industry research firm is predicting that spending on drones over the next ten years will double, to nearly $90 billion, with most of that being spent in the US.

There is even an industry trade group (of course there is), the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which has been making grandiose claims about the number of jobs the industry will create (although not much mention of any potential jobs that might be lost, needless to say.) And there are industry conferences and meetings, including, for example, the Alaska Unmanned Aircraft Systems Interest Group Annual Meeting coming up. Well, Alaska is a pretty big place, so I can imagine a lot of these things flying around without too much of an impact on anything. In fact, it looks like a pretty interesting get-together. Downtown Manhattan, not so much, perhaps. I bet the big industry conference in Dubai in September is a hoot. Why on earth might mid-east governments be interested in drones, one wonders. Ah, probably to inspect pipelines. That’s probably it. Well, in fact, they probably are. But no doubt there are governments interested in other things as well.

In fact, I’m off to attend the Farnborough International Airshow next Friday, and there should be plenty of stuff on these things there. I don’t know if we’ll see demonstrations as part of the air show itself, but one can hope. It will be interesting to see if any of the major “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” manufacturers are pushing any of these non-military applications. The fact of the matter is that while defense spending is trending down in the US and in Europe, defense spending continues to rise on a global basis. Sometimes it seems as if every country in Asia and Africa really, really wants an air force. So even if some of these nifty potential non-defense applications don’t quite work out, I suspect the manufacturers of these things are probably looking at a pretty bright future nonetheless. I can see a scenario in which Bahrain, to pick a random example, suddenly has an interest in acquiring a whole fleet of drones—if it doesn’t already have them. As impressive as some of this technology undoubtedly is, that still doesn’t raise my comfort level over whether we’ll be able to intelligently manage it appropriately.

2 replies »

  1. Bezos is soaking up free advertising, there’s not a chance in hell Amazon, or Walgreens, or Larry’s Pizza will be delivering books, food, and sundries via multirotor drones in the short term future. The expense, complexity, danger, and limited energy density of current battery technology simply precludes it.

    Everything else in your piece rings true, When the USA (CIA) used a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone to knock out a Land Cruiser full of Taliban Chieftans in 2002 we crossed a line in human history that can never be erased. The next line will be taking life with fully autonomous drones, and we’re not far from it.

    Threat or menace? FuckanAtweety.

  2. You know, if twenty years ago you had told me all the things corporations can do now, I wouldn’t have believed you. So I’m reserving judgment on Amazon. Commons sense says this is an insane idea. Of course, so is letting US companies move their tax domicile overseas (including Pentagon contractors), and giving companies the religion of their choice. I am no longer surprised at anything corporations are allowed to get away with.