Land of drones

Amazon.com drone delivery launches more questions than answers


Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of Amazon.com, told 60 Minutes recently that small drones — unmanned, remote-control flying vehicles — would be making deliveries to homes and businesses within five years, assuming the Federal Aviation Administration gets on board.

Mr. Bezos said the mini-aircraft will deliver packages weighing as much as five pounds within a 10-mile radius of Amazon warehouses. From the moment an order is made until the product touches down on someone’s front porch, he added, the whole transaction should take as little as 30 minutes.

The only thing that could be faster, as comedian Stephen Colbert pointed out, would be walking into a bookstore and buying a book.

The Amazon plan depends on FAA compliance with a congressional mandate to develop rules to integrate unmanned aerial craft in the nation’s airspace by 2015. You can then multiply Amazon’s thousands of delivery drones by those that could be deployed by competing retailers, private investigators, corporate snoops, and law enforcement agencies that will seek to use similar technology and crowd the nation’s lower air space — not to mention compromise personal privacy.

Even if the FAA meets the deadline for writing new rules to cope with this technology, tens of thousands of drones in the air could make enforcement impossible. Crashes would be inevitable, and some of the accidents would result in death, injury, or property damage on the ground.

But there could be benevolent uses of civilian drones, beginning with the enhancement of information needed by police officers and firefighters to respond to emergencies, and the improved ability of news agencies to cover events. Like other cutting-edge technologies, this one can cut both ways.

Ready or not, an innovation with untold applications is taking flight. With a major corporate enterprise such as Amazon eager to give drones a try, the brave new world is practically here.