The Reality of Drones in the Public Sphere

What used to require hundreds of hours of military training and pricey equipment could now be undertaken by a single drone, controlled by an operator thousands of miles away.

This cost-efficiency is what made drones so attractive to the public, easing its transition from the military sphere. For companies like Amazon, the overhead that could be cleared by eliminating the human factor is extremely attractive to its upper-management. By shifting from a people-powered work force to a robotic one, corporations like Amazon are looking at massive profits.

It’s not just Amazon that has been trumpeting the prospect of a drone-based workforce. Venture Capitalists have been pushing the concept of drones delivering pizza, doing your shopping for you and much more. Likewise, Venture Capital have been serious about investing in the technology, injecting $79 million – more than doubling the investment of 2012 – into various drone manufacturers this year alone. Robotics manufacturers have likewise seen that amount jump to $174 million.

Aside from applications involving delivery and crop-dusting, drone usage has been bandied about by law-enforcement in the United States, with usages ranging from public surveillance to crowd control via tear gas and rubberized bullets.

Put simply, if the venture capitalists, corporations and economics analysts are to be believed, drones filling the roles people have filled for hundreds of years in the near future is a certainty.

Despite the skyrocketing investment in drone technology and their many theoretical usages, there has been little discourse over the potential hazards of drones occupying the skies.

While it’s easy for us to envision little robots dropping parcels at our doorstep, there are a wide range of issues both practical and conceptual that can impede the realization of drone technology on a wider scale. And these hurdles are such that they could stop the propagation of drones before it can even start.

 The Real ‘Cost’ of Drones

While debate over drones has classically been constrained to their ethical usage in the military, their ever-increasing visibility has led to similar questions being asked of public drones.

Perhaps the biggest problem with drones flying over major North American cities is with their tracking systems and their ability to navigate the skyline of major metropolises. It’s one thing to deliver a payload in scarcely populated mountains and deserts, and quite another to avoid the various power lines, commercial aircrafts and more inhabiting any major city. Nobody even bothered to touch the issue of P.O box delivery either.

One engineer interviewed for this piece claims that, “while Amazon claims they are only 5 years away from delivering mail to your doorstep, – strictly from an engineering perspective – the technology to make that possible is still a ways away. There are so many intangibles that I think it’s safe to say that we won’t be seeing them on the scale that is being publicized now.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, which governs the usage of aircrafts in the public, has been given a soft deadline of fourth quarter 2015 by the American congress to begin, “safe implementation of the laws and regulation allowing safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”

Aside from the technology itself, questions involving the public consumption of commercially available drones revolve around height lockouts, hacking, or overloaded networks cutting the signal between operator and drone, and much more.

Other than these theoretical problems there is also the issue of human resources. If drones are implemented on the scale sought by Venture Capitalists and Corporations, the human cost would be substantial. Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost to a fleet of drones, and this could resonate in the economy much like the introduction of robotics to the assembly line of car manufacturers did.

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