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When Amazon Drones Descend Upon Us

When Amazon Drones Descend Upon Us


Eugene Gan - published on 12/05/13

Drones aren't just for the military anymore. Amazon wants to start delivering packages straight to people's homes with an army of tiny unmanned aerial vehicles. Are you ready for commercial drones to take over our skies?

Want your goods to arrive within 30 minutes of you placing your order? Soon you can! Amazon wants to deliver your packages fast, as in air delivery by helicopter drones straight to your doorstep. At least that’s what Amazon is hoping, pending the FAA’s (Federal Aviation Administration) approval.

UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) aka UASs (unmanned aircraft systems) aka drones aren’t a new idea. The idea of drones has been with us since science fiction writers first explored the concept of flying robots. And if we broaden the definition to include wirelessly controlled vehicles, we can go all the way back to 1898 when Nikola Tesla – futurist, inventor, engineer, father of the modern alternating current system, and all-around cool-geek-dude – tested out wirelessly remote controlled boats. The U.S. also built unmanned, gyroscopically stabilized biplanes back in WWI. In 2001, the drone became synonymous with Predator UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) strikes in Afghanistan. And you’ve likely seen movies or video clips of soldiers in the field deploying backpackable drones that can deliver real-time video feeds of enemy movement (the drone in the 2012 movie Act of Valor was the “Raven”). It’s a pity too, because say the word “drone” nowadays and it inevitably brings up negative connotations that are associated with targeted killing. Yet all this may soon change if drones (Amazon’s R&D calls them Prime Air “Octocopters”) become a commonplace sight, delivering your orders straight to you.

Will airmail be forever transformed? Will drones supplant the already cash-strapped U.S. postal system? Will carrier pigeons go on strike? Only time will tell. One thing’s for sure, just as we have a word for the fear of falling man-made satellites (I kid you not: it’s “keraunothnetophobia”), so too we’ll have to come up with a word for the fear of falling/looming man-made Amazon drones. And since I have a doctorate, I think I’m automatically qualified to make up new words like “dronophobia”, or how about the more effusive and garrulous “Amazonodronophobia”? Remember folks, you heard it here first.

Yes, it’s a cool idea to be able to have drones deliver my packages. (For some reason, the image of a Jetsons-like sky – or Coruscant if you’re too young to recall George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy – filled with crisscrossing aerial drones and other air traffic keeps coming to mind). Yes, it’ll be cool to order Amazon stuff off my iPad and cooler still to perhaps be able to follow the drone in real time on Google maps or see the video feed from the drone’s built-in camera (talk about tracking my orders!). I’m sure others will jump on the drone wagon as well if this…takes off. Starbucks with coffee drone-delivered punctually every morning. Dominos drone pizza delivery with a “30 minutes or it’s free” guarantee would be reinstated. Oh, the convenience of not exercising and walking down to the corner store! Oh, sheer indolence! Of course, all this assuming drone delivery prices are within reason. (I’d hate to see a product price list $1.99, drone delivery $99.99).

But there are real humanitarian benefits to futuristic drone delivery technology too. Think transportation of food and medical supplies to remote corners of the globe or during catastrophes. Perhaps a large enough drone can even airlift human beings out of danger zones and in emergencies. Even the now humdrum grind of airline travel can benefit. Picture this: your luggage delivered straight to your destination. No more airline baggage fees and dragging your suitcases through airports. I bet in time the economy of large legions of drones will keep drone delivery costs low. And then mom and dads everywhere can send care packages to their kids who are away at school, which, pardon the pun, will give new meaning to helicopter parents.

Keep reading on the next page

Of course, the abuse of such goods and technologies is sure to ensue. As it is, a University of Texas engineering team successfully hacked a drone while it was in mid-flight and changed its course by sending it false GPS signals that tricked the drone’s own GPS guidance system, a technique known as “spoofing”. Or how about attack drones that, like birds of prey, swoop in to swipe the packages from these peaceful Amazon drones going about their business? Or trigger-happy chaps taking pot-shots at them? Target practice, anyone? What’s Amazon going to do? Build and fund prisons for drone thieves? Call it Amazon Prime Prison? Or privacy issues? Or terrorists commandeering drones and delivering explosives? Or lightning strikes and bad weather? If bad weather can ground an Airbus A380, what chance do Amazon drones have? Or if these drones break down mid-flight, we’ll have packages free falling out of the sky. Amazonodronopackageophobia.

Thank goodness Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos says he’s limiting the drone packages to 5 pounds. But do the math: 5 pounds, aided by gravity, and depending on the height can kill/seriously injure a human below. Still, Bezos maintains “[t]his is all electric, it’s very green, it’s better than driving trucks around.” All fine and good, but I don’t want to have my head or my easily excitable kids’ heads anywhere near those 8 propeller blades when the Amazon drones come calling. What do you think? Share your thoughts below.

Also, just to set it all straight right now: no, the Catholic Church will not be using drones to carry Our Lord in the Eucharist to the sick and those confined at home. Eucharistic ministers or a priest will still bring Our Lord in person. This has nothing to do with being progressive. It’s about keeping the sacred sacred in the same way we have a chalice and paten and not some ordinary cup and plate at Mass. That, and the canonical practice of receiving Our Lord and not taking Our Lord out of some drone’s basket.

Still, it makes me kind of proud to be at the forefront of communications technology and to have recently bought my kids one of these drone’s little baby brother: a tiny, remote controlled, indoor helicopter that fits in the palm of your hand and can supposedly fly around our living room for 5 minutes before exhausting itself and needing a rest (recharge) for an hour or so. But shhh…don’t tell my kids just yet. They’ll have to wait till Christmas (actually, we open our gifts on Epiphany).

Dr Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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