Consider the LobsterCopter.
For a small fee, the east coast's hottest startup promised to deliver tasty crustaceans to hungry customers via unmanned aerial drone. Simply order a lobster with your smartphone or tablet, and a short while later watch it plummet with delicious velocity from above. On the west coast, LobsterCopter's sister startup, TacoCopter, promised the same service for Mexican food.
So intense is the technology industry's fascination with drones these days that many people at first believed that these startups – conceived last year – actually existed. And – who knows? – maybe the on-demand lobster airdrop is an idea whose time has finally come.
Since smartphone-powered quadcopters first surfaced in ever-increasing numbers at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, myriad venture capital firms and industry heavyweights have invested millions of dollars in drone startups. In Australia, a textbook rental startup plans to deliver books by quadcopter; in England, Domino's teased an aerial pizza delivery system. By one measure, U.S. investors gave drone startups some $40-million in the first nine months of this year, more than double what they invested in all of 2012.
But as far as hype goes, nothing compares to Amazon's announcement on Sunday that the company is researching a fleet of octocopters (eight propellers instead of four) to deliver products within 30 minutes of a customer placing an order – a project called Prime Air. Even though Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the drones will probably not be deployed on a large scale for another three years at least (watch a video of the drone here), the very idea that the world's largest digital store is betting so heavily on drone technology is perhaps the best thing to ever happen to the industry.
In reality, Amazon is just the largest of many companies looking to cash in on the coming normalization of drone technology in the United States. Last year, a law called the FAA Modernization And Reform Act instructed the Federal Aviation Authority to come up with a clear policy for commercial drone use – something the agency plans to do by 2015.
For years, the cost of building drones has been plummeting, thanks in part to the rise of industrial-grade 3-D Printers. And once the FAA finishes its work, the industry will have its ground rules. Amazon's drone ambitions, disclosed this early almost certainly to drum up some hype for the company, are not anomalous. One way or another, the drones are coming.
But until they arrive in the consumer space en masse, drones are still the subject of serious concern among wide swaths of the population.
Some of the immediate objections to Amazon's drone project are thematically similar to those raised in the face of all new technology. A few hours after Prime Air was unveiled, a couple of reporters noted that, should the drones actually go into service, anyone with a rifle and a decent aim will be able to obtain products for free. But, presumably, anyone with a rifle and a decent aim can walk into a convenience store right now and obtain products for free. They'd just be, you know, breaking the law.
Other questions – which are yet unanswered – have to do with the privacy implications of a drone-filled sky. Will Amazon attach cameras to its octocopters to deter or catch acts of vandalism? If so, what are the guidelines for storing and accessing that data?
(I posed these questions to Amazon's media team, and will post updates if or when they respond.)
But perhaps the most interesting reaction to Amazon's announcement on Sunday was a kind of visceral distaste for the whole concept of mass drone deployment – a sentiment expressed on Twitter and elsewhere in the form of both serious criticism and jokes about the Amazon drones becoming sentient, heralding a Terminator-style dystopia, and so on.
That reaction seems in large part prompted by the drone industry's already partially poisoned public image. Across the globe, unmanned aircraft are doing vital work far better and more safely than their human-carrying kin. This includes tasks such as inspecting damaged bridges, mapping difficult terrain and monitoring endangered wildlife, among other things. But because they've been used so extensively to rain down death on combatants (and, on many occasions, civilians) in conflict zones around the globe, drones have been more closely associated in recent years with one thing above all else: war.
None of this is the fault of the Silicon Valley startups building unmanned drones for hobbyists and particularly forward-looking pizza parlours. Nor is it all that difficult to find all kinds of technology simultaneously used for commercial and military purposes (for example, regular manned aircraft). But the particularly opaque and contentious nature of military drones has left a sizable public relations mountain for the wider, largely unrelated industry to climb – and that's before they get to answering all those other questions about privacy, liability and security.
With Amazon's announcement, we are undoubtedly one step closer to that Jetsons-flavoured future of ubiquitous flying automata everywhere. But that future has been on the way for years – Amazon may be the biggest company to hop on the commercial drone bandwagon, but it is certainly not the first.
As such, for the substantial portion of the population still deeply uneasy about or entirely antagonistic to the idea of mass drone use, the focus should now shift to scrutinizing the work that aviation and privacy authorities will do to design a meaningful regulatory framework for this technology. It wasn't all that long ago that Amazon's web-focused business model sent lawmakers in dozens of U.S. states scrambling to update their suddenly outdated sales tax provisions – something that many of them have still not figured out. This time around, there's no excuse for getting caught by surprise.