Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, a drone!
In those exhausted hours Sunday after the Thanksgiving leftovers were finally reduced to crumbs, the college football games wrapped up and wallets were left a little less plump, Jeff Bezos, the multibillionaire founder of online behemoth Amazon, had an announcement to make.
On CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes,” he declared that, within five years, Amazon would be delivering some of its packages using drone technology.
It all seems so Buck Rogers-ish. Let’s say you’re sitting at home and get a sudden hankering to own a leather-bound copy of “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “The Complete Monty Python” DVD set. You click on that “purchase” button and, lo and behold, within a half-hour you hear the gentle whir of the drone blades. It settles down gracefully in your driveway and, before you know it, you’re absorbing Alexandre Dumas’ prose or hearing Michael Palin bellow, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
In theory and, undoubtedly, to Amazon’s shareholders, it all seems so futuristic, so cutting-edge, so much a “game-changer” to use that shopworn slice of boardroom jargon. But the reality is probably much closer to how James Ball, a columnist for The Guardian, described it: “It’s all hot air and baloney.”
First, regulations for the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles have not yet been crafted on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are targeting 2015 as the date they want to get them off the ground, if you’ll pardon the pun, but we probably shouldn’t wager large sums that those rules will actually be in place by then, given the sluggish pace at which Congress moves.
Moreover, Bezos’ vision of drone delivery is only within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon delivery outlet. If you are part of the vast majority of customers who live 11 or many more miles from a delivery center, you will presumably have to keep relying on the old-fashioned, less-instantaneous delivery methods.
Setting aside the logistics Amazon faces in trying to use drones to bring us books and other consumer goods, we have to ask if we want our skies cluttered by drones zipping hither, thither and yon. While it’s reassuring to know they can be used for something other than zapping our adversaries in the Middle East or nabbing leadfoots on our highways, do we want them swooping between skyscrapers or apartment buildings? Rest assured, until the technology is refined, there would be plenty of drones that ended up plopping down in the wrong place, slamming into buildings, getting tangled in wires, disrupting the flight paths of helicopters or other low-flying aircraft or otherwise injuring people and animals. “It’s all fun and games until little Sally loses a finger,” said Matt Waite, a journalism and mass communications professor at the University of Nebraska who specializes in studying drones.
While some believe this is the herald of the proverbial “brave new world,” it could very well end up being like all those “expert” predictions made in the last century about how we’d all be living in the year 2000. Back then, they forecast we’d all be able to fly around the world in a day by now, tool around in combined automobiles and airplanes and undergo appendectomies electronically.
Sorry, but we haven’t noticed too many landing strips in our backyards lately.
For the time being – and, likely, for a long time to come – we’ll have to keep gazing longingly up the street to see if the mail carrier or UPS driver is on the way.