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Amazon's Plan For Drones To Deliver Packages To Customers, And A Primer About Drones

During an interview on the 60 Minutes television show, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos disclosed a test plan -- called Prime Air -- for the online retailer to use drones to deliver packages to its customers. The plan is years away, doesn't have approvals by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and would deliver packages to customers only within 10 miles of a fulfillment center.

Regardless, the news meda is on fire with reports -- many with photographs and video of the drones, also called UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles): Associated Press, Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, CNet, Huffington Post, PSFK, the New York Times, and countless others. Almost immediately, some satire images appeared online.

This Atlantic article explored the issues with package delivery by drones. Some retailers view the new technology as a way to solve the last-mile delivery problem. Matternet wants to use drones for package delivery in remote areas and in developing countries. Forbes Magazine reported about the societal disruption this new technology poses:

"Bezos says that Amazon is on its 7th generation of fulfillment centers. The public never heard much about those seven evolutions because they were all invisible, all back-end optimizations, all techy algorithmic stuff. Amazon’s service kept getting better in the form of faster delivery times... But drone delivery is a different kind of evolution. It’s visibly and behaviorally disruptive. And, as a marketer, Bezos wisely sees the need to start softening up the consumer market well in advance of these devices even being legal. Because he likely understands that there will be several critical phases to the public’s ultimate adoption of this technology, and each phase will take time."

The Forbes article emphasized the calculation Amazon has made: it is cheaper to let the news media normalize a new, disruptive technology rather than pay for the large amounts of advertising necessary. Others reported that the announcement coincides with Cyber Monday, and may have garnered for Amazon.com as much as $3 million in free advertising.

Wired reported that the concept isn't really new; that FedEx previously considered it. Wired also reported:

"Some weary of the use of unmanned aircraft have already pledged to shoot them down... there are more subtle ways to take down a small electric octocotper, including nets, even “mist nets”–virtually invisible nets used to catch or control birds–that would allow everybody from protesters to simple thieves to stop a delivery. And of course there is probably a hacker or two who would like to tackle the problem."

Besides military usage of drones for both warfare and cargo delivery, a wide variety of institutions want to use drones domestically: local police departments, journalists, paparazzi, movie studios, farmers, colleges and universities, and the National Guard (for rescues). FAA Administrator Michael Huerta predicted that there could be as many as 7,500 commercial drones in U.S. airspace within the next five years. So, there needs to be laws and guidance, about who can (and cannot) possess and operate drones; plus where and under what conditions.

TechCrunch discussed the three major limitations of drones: technical, privacy, and poor judgement by operators. We've all experienced crazy automobile drivers on the roads. Now, imagine the skies filled with drones controlled by crazy operators. Similar to driver's licenses, some experts say drone operator's licenses are likely.

The Guardian has a pretty good primer about drones. Way back in January 2012, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) discussed drones and privacy:

"Drones are capable of highly advanced and almost constant surveillance, and they can amass large amounts of data. They carry various types of equipment including live-feed video cameras, infrared cameras, heat sensors, and radar. Some newer drones carry super high resolution “gigapixel” cameras that can “track people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet... Predator drones can eavesdrop on electronic transmissions, and one drone unveiled at DEFCON last year can crack Wi-Fi networks and intercept text messages and cell phone conversations... some have suggested that drones carrying weapons such as tasers and bean bag guns could be used domestically."

Like any other technology, there is a market for drones. The EFF reported:

"According to a July 15, 2010 FAA Fact Sheet (PDF), “[i]n the United States alone, approximately 50 companies, universities, and government organizations are developing and producing some 155 unmanned aircraft designs.” According to one market research firm, approximately 70% of global growth and market share of unmanned aircraft systems is in the United States (PDF)."

Companies frequently test new technology in other countries before introducing it in the United States. Examples that come to mind include smart recycling trash bins in England, and smart shopping carts in Brazil. Some experts expect drones to be tested in other countries before the USA. As CNBC reported:

"The FAA is way behind the curve.. Drone experts are not optimistic for a 2015 deadline." It is just a little over a year away... and they don't even have the test sites named, much less the framework laid out."

Discovering the entities that already use drones domestically is difficult. Disclosure rules are weak or nonexistent. No doubt, there will be plenty more discussions about drones.


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Chanson de Roland

Gee, robot aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), equipped with advanced surveillance technology and/or weapons that would be, at least for the surveillance technologies, in the hands of the government and private parties, and for the government, the UAVs may well be equipped with weapons.

What could go wrong? Perhaps misidentifying three guys in a car, resulting in taking out three family men, who NSA misidentified as terrorists? The scope for tragic folly, invasions of privacy, and/or tyranny are limited only by the imagination, and the technology. And against those prospective but nearly certain harms, we weigh the benefits of improved transportation, more effective law enforcement, greater safe and rescue, etc.

It seems that it will all come down to how well we regulate UAVs to reap the benefits, while preventing the harms. However, that this task falls to the U.S. Congress, the President, the courts, and c-suite managers leaves me, at least, very doubtful that UAVs won't prove to be on net harmful, if not tragic.

How would Orwell rewrite 1984 to reflect the latest and foreseeable technology?

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