When Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, announced to the world that the monolithic company was aiming to offer delivery options in the half-hour range in the next few years, he raised more than a few eyebrows. While seemingly something out of a science fiction movie, drone shipping services delivering last-minute Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve are a real potentiality — the technology is available, but it isn’t the technology that poses a problem.
Society at large still has a reticent attitude toward the use of drones for commercial and domestic applications — after all, they are most regularly employed overseas by the military in counter-terrorism operations, and lawmakers have concerns about everything from air traffic safety to homeland security. Due to the Internet, shipping services are increasingly important to how many companies do business, and when you’re shipping goods to customers, speed is king. Here is a look at what the drone delivery services dream has to overcome in order to be a reliable part of the United States’ shipping and receiving future.
The Federal Aviation Administration
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is tasked with the work of developing and maintaining the United States’ air traffic control system. They also work to keep all non-military aviation safe, while simultaneously developing and promoting civil aeronautics. In short, they oversee U.S. skies in regards to everything that isn’t under the auspices of one of the four branches of military. The FAA has seen that flying drones for personal and recreational use is legal, but they banned their use in commercial applications in 2007. In 2012, Congress gave the agency a directive to grant drones access to commercial use by September 2015, but that deadline will most likely not be met, as the FAA has already missed several key benchmarks in the process. While the technology continues to advance, the law has struggled to keep pace, and it looks like it will continue to do so.
Safety and Insurance
Another key impediment to drone delivery services that is closely linked to the FAA’s struggles is that of safety. What happens if a drone crashes? What if it hits a bird or a building? Because Amazon’s “octocopters” are GPS-driven and not controlled a person, who will be to blame if they fail in their mission and cause damage? Besides the threat of harm to people and property, how will shipments be insured? Is there even an underwriter who would take on the risk? Until a convincing and reliable collision avoidance system is put in place, it’s hard to imagine drones in U.S. airspace whose only mission is to make sure someone gets their new sweater a half-hour after it was ordered.
Surveillance — both legal and illegal — is becoming more and more of a concern as technology advances, and privacy concerns in regards to drone deliveries have already been raised. If the sky were filled with flocks of drones, it would be hard to tell the delivery drones from the spies, and surveillance could come from a number of places and serve a variety of purposes:
- Advertisers could gain information on how — and what — to sell to people with personal information gleaned from drone surveillance.
- Drones operated by the government could try to circumvent fourth amendment laws.
- Drones that take video or photos could be used to blackmail people.
Law Enforcement and the Postal System
Besides the obvious threats and difficulties that delivery drones would pose in relation to law enforcement’s efforts to “protect and serve,” their operation outside of the current postal system would really send a wrench into law enforcement’s spokes. Believe it or not, law enforcement tracks all kinds of packages in the current postal system. From the USPS to FedEx and more, all mail that travels through the U.S. system is logged. All the information on the outside of letters and packages are scanned so that if law enforcement has a warrant, or if that package is traveling into or out of the country, the government can open it. With drone deliveries, tracking items in the postal system would go “dark” for law enforcement in the same way that email has due to better and better encryption tools.
About the Author: Jonah Smythe is a contributing writer and technology consultant.