Fresh from above

The announcement by Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos that his company is in the planning stages of “Prime Air” drone delivery has set off a broad debate. Many are vocally supporting or decrying the viability, and legality, of such a plan. The drones, called “octocopters,” were introduced by Bezos on 60 Minutes. They will have a theoretical range of 10 miles, with the capacity to carry packages weighing up to five pounds, or 2.3 kilograms. This would allow for delivery of 86 per cent of the products that tend to be ordered from the online retailer, with larger and heavier goods still relying on conventional methods.

A demonstration video on Amazon.com shows a small, four-propeller drone successfully carrying an orange container from an Amazon warehouse to the outstretched arms of smiling customers. Despite the air of optimism, however, Amazon still faces an uphill battle to secure the legality of commercial drone flights.

Drone usage in American airspace is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose current position on the issue is unambiguous: “there are no means to obtain an authorization for commercial [drone] operations.” Bezos was nonetheless optimistic that a legal compromise could be reached, saying he hoped for a green light as early as 2015, at which time the FAA is supposed to submit its plan for integrating drones into domestic airspace.

From Bezos’ point of view, it would appear that legislation is the slowest part of the puzzle. Amazon has stated that its technology is prepared to enter commercial operations as soon as regulations allow – but many critics question the viability of drones in crowded domestic spaces. Dealing with inclement weather is but one of many potential issues the drones will struggle with, alongside privacy questions. How many sensors and cameras should the drones be able to use? There are also safety concerns—what happens if a computer malfunctions mid-flight and the drone crashes somewhere?

Reacting to Amazon’s pledge to make the sight of unmanned aerial vehicles “as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road,” citizens in Deer Trail, Colorado have lobbied for an ordinance that would give them the right to hunt drones. In a scheme that seems more suited to comedic satire than city hall, the town plans to sell drone hunting licenses for $25, and offer bounties of up to $100 for each drone.

The ordinance, which claims that “every unwanted unmanned aerial vehicle is… a threat to… precious freedom,” echoes already common fears amongst consumers that their retailers know too much about them. Wary shoppers have become used to the idea that, as with Facebook and Google, many bricks-and-mortar institutions also seek to build complicated consumer-behaviour profiles that attempt to predict shopping habits, and these concerns must also be evaluated by the FAA before it approves of Amazon’s delivery dreams.

With so many apparent roadblocks, other critics have labeled the announcement little more than a publicity stunt for Cyber Monday, the largest online shopping day of the year. The Guardian’s James Ball called the plan “hot air and baloney,” suggesting that the entire announcement was a convenient way to shift public attention away from Amazon’s sometimes-problematic business practices. Indeed, this is hardly the first time commercial drones have been promised by a company vying for press attention. In June, Domino’s Pizza announced plans to deliver its products by air as well, and in Australia, textbook retailer Zookal has made a similar claim.

Regardless of whether Amazon’s Prime Air program ever takes off, it seems likely that a push for civilian drone usage will only increase. Projections from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) put the domestic drone industry at $80–90 billion in the next decade, leading to an estimated 100 000 jobs. Zookal’s announcement has led Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority to begin a similar process to the one being undertaken by the FAA. Given the money behind retailers like Amazon, it seems probable that commercial service drones will soon be flying the friendly skies.

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