(c) 2013, Slate.
(c) 2013, Slate.
In an infomercial hosted by Charlie Rose on CBS's "60 Minutes" this weekend, Amazon announced that it plans to deliver small packages via drone in the near future. Many media outlets have credulously repeated this claim, just like they did with the beer-delivering drone and the taco-delivering drone.
However, the technical, regulatory and logistical challenges of autonomous flight in crowded American urban airspace are far more profound than CEO Jeff Bezos allowed on TV. As he said, the FAA is now revising its rules regarding autonomous flight. The FAA roadmap is complex. But it bluntly states (on page 33): "Autonomous operations are not permitted." There is an exception for line-of-sight operations for small UAVs. But Bezos' vision of autonomous delivery in a city is not, according to the FAA roadmap, in the cards in the next few years.
Drones continue to be crash-prone and limited in range and payload capability. If they are flown on a small scale, these are surmountable obstacles. Drones can be, and already are, useful to public safety personnel and others who are using them in limited fashion. Large drones like the Predator flew over Yosemite wildfires over the summer. Police departments using smaller drones have had only limited success. As Susan Greene reported in the Colorado Independent earlier this year:
[Mesa County's] drones were unsuccessful in the two search and rescue missions in which they were deployed — searches for a suicidal woman in February and for lost hikers last May. So far, he is frustrated to admit, "We've never found anyone yet."
Today's drones are good at gathering information. Bigger drones are better at this than smaller ones. And only large, expensive drones flown by the U.S. government are currently any good at delivering physical objects.
If thousands of drones are to fly around delivering packages across cities, they must become orders of magnitude more reliable than they are. Otherwise some will crash every day, and Bezos will have to hire an army of people to drive around, pick up the fallen drones, deliver the packages, and refurbish the drones. To satisfy the FAA, drones makers (and would-be operators) must prove that they are able to avoid airplanes, helicopters and one another and to handle sudden changes in the weather.
With the miniaturization of electronics, drone technology has advanced rapidly over the last several years. But the only thing it will be delivering for Amazon in the near future is good publicity, a shiny distraction from serious inquiry into the company's ambitions and practices.
Konstantin Kakaes is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the e-book "The Pioneer Detectives: Did a Distant Spacecraft Prove Einstein and Newton Wrong?"