Civilian drones need serious study

The OlympianDecember 6, 2013 

Do you tip a drone? It sounds funny, but the future envisioned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos might include unmanned aircraft delivering pizzas to your front door.

The Amazon visionary’s surprise announcement on a CBS “60 Minutes” episode that the company is testing drones to deliver packages within a half-hour of purchase might be nothing more than a publicity stunt. Many people think so.

It sounds like science fiction that a drone could drop a stack of books on your porch or set down a stereo system in your driveway.

But what if it’s not? The implications for public safety, and privacy, are ominous.

Many early technologies originally developed for the military have crossed over into civilian life. What would we do today without duct tape, Global Position System satellites, microwave ovens and programmable computers? The concept is not without precedent.

The Federal Aviation Administration has also been thinking about commercial and personal applications for drones. The agency started to develop rules for drones in civilian airspace in 2009, and has not gotten far.

Congress tried to speed things along last year in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act by including a 2015 deadline for the completion of drone regulations. Even if it made that deadline, a series of congressional hearings into privacy and safety concerns could delay implementation for months, or years.

It’s not hard to imagine drones crashing into power lines or colliding with each other. Human pilots of recreational planes will find small drones difficult to see, possibly causing mid-air collisions. The buzzing of delivery drones could anger residents within once-quiet neighborhoods.

And then there’s the nasty spectre of drones unintentionally, or not, spying on people. Cameras will have to track the drones, which must have some local detecting equipment, and images might be recorded.

Bezos probably got ahead of himself. Delivery drone technology and regulatory clearance are years, if not decades, into the future.

Still, forest firefighters and the FBI use drones today. Storm trackers are almost there. Other practical uses will follow. Home or commercial deliveries aren’t out of the question.

Putting thoughtful and forward-looking regulations in place now should be an FAA priority. And Congress must establish a disciplined process for reviewing and updating regulations for flying civilian drones.

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