Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's announcement that his company expects to be delivering packages using drone technology within the next five years raises many questions, the most pressing of which is, Do we really need to be able to order a Mr. Potato Head doll online and have it delivered to our home in the space of 30 minutes? The answer is, Yes, we really need to be able to order a Mr. Potato Head doll online and have it delivered to our home in the space of 30 minutes.
You think we're kidding? We're not. Mr. Bezos's statement on the CBS show 60 Minutes sparked a fair bit of comment, mostly along the sarcastic lines of What Could Possibly Go Wrong? People imagined the urban sun being blotted out by murmurations of darting drones making critical deliveries of the audiobook version of 50 Shades of Grey. They saw the drones smashing into each other in midair and crashing in flames, or people running in the streets and screaming as malfunctioning cyborg copters bore down on them.
Somehow we don't foresee that happening. Drone technology is developing rapidly, and governments are paying attention to the risks. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Authority is reviewing safety issues and won't begin to authorize commercial drones until 2015 at the earliest. In Canada, it is already legal to operate commercial drones but only with the proper certification from Transport Canada. We are not on the verge of a wild west of unregulated drone mayhem.
A more legitimate concern is privacy. Cellphone cameras are already ubiquitous; what if those cameras sprout wings? There is a risk of pervasive peering into private lives. But new technology can be made to conform to long-standing rules assuring personal privacy, so long as it is clear who is operating drones and for what purpose.
As Transport Canada points out on its website, drones will be a benefit to numerous activities, many of them high-risk, such as weather observation, crop-dusting, mineral exploration, the inspection of remote power lines and pipelines, traffic and accident surveillance, and firefighting. (No mention of replacing Rudolph and the rest of Santa's reindeer.) The drone business is going to grow rapidly in the next decade. If one of the consequences is that the devices become so routine and safe that they are used to deliver a toy to your door 30 minutes after you ordered it, that's not a bad thing.