commercial-drone

Only a few years ago, an army of Amazon delivery drones known as “Amazon Prime Air” would have sounded like an April Fool’s Joke. Even as recently as last December, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled his delivery-by-air plan on “60 Minutes,” some observers dismissed the aircrafts as “smoke and mirrors” and little more than a publicity stunt to drum up press for Amazon ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Sure, the “60 Minutes” piece may have served that purpose, but if today’s news is any indication, Bezos isn’t fooling around.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon has formally asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to start testing drones over its own private property. The petition states that the company is on its ninth drone prototype, meaning it’s much farther along than many expected. The drones can travel up to 50 miles per hour, deliver products in 30 minutes or less, and carry packages weighing up to 5 pounds, which covers 86 percent of all Amazon deliveries, writes the Journal.

“One day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today,” Amazon’s vice president of global public policy Paul Misener wrote in the request.

The question is, should we be terrified by a sky full of little flying robots owned and operated by a corporation that, like most corporations, has questionable scruples? Or does drone-hysteria threaten to stifle what would be the most innovative advancement in delivery since the singing telegram?

The word “drone,” like “disruption” or “gentrification,” is heavily weighted by an individual’s perceptions. We may think of the thousands killed by US drone strikes, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire. We may think of Google’s nascent drone program, and why it’s problematic to put unmanned planes in the hands of a company that once used its Street View vehicles to collect data from unprotected WiFi networks.

When Amazon’s drones were first announced, Pando’s Yasha Levine was appropriately skeptical of the company’s defenders, which ranged from the libertarian Koch-funded Cato Institute to the social activists at the ACLU. And certainly, it’s foolish to simply assume and trust that Amazon’s drones will be safe, efficient, and that they won’t spy on our every move.

But it’s also important to avoid a knee-jerk fear-based reaction to the drones. By vastly reducing the amount of truck space now needed to deliver products, the savings in gasoline alone could be significant. (Certainly the drones will take up energy too so we don’t want to make too many assumptions about fossil fuel savings yet). Plus, while the immense value-add in terms of convenience shouldn’t be the only justification for the drone program, it’s certainly nothing to brush off lightly.

This is a crucial time for private drones. Tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook want them, and with their increasingly close ties to Washington, DC, they will probably get them, one way or another. What matters is that, as exemptions and other laws are passed with regard to drones, these statutes are written in a way that protect citizens from both surveillance and drone copter blades that have caused all manners of injuries to hobbyists.

It’s also crucial for resources to be allocated toward enforcing these rules. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves in the same situation we’re now in regarding data privacy — where we gave everything away and didn’t even realize it until it was too late.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]