Sunday, February 09, 2014

Flights of Fancy

Need a new toaster or coffee maker? Simply go online, choose the model you like, and it will delivered to your door in 30 minutes.
Want a pizza for dinner? One mouse click or phone call and it’s on its way to you in 15 minutes. No tip necessary. Want beer with that meal? A six-pack arrives so fast it’s still ice cold.
Ditto for your dry clearing, groceries, shoes and clothing and other everyday items from baby needs to books.
Just call 1-800-Drone and it will be swiftly directed through the air and gently deposited in your hands before you can say “the future is now.”
OK, we may be getting ahead of ourselves a bit here. But not by much. Drones, familiar to most Americans as military hunter/killers, are about to be tamed. In an unprecedented image makeover, we are on the verge of converting a weapon of war into an airborne convenience store.
And if you think it’s a fantasy, know this: Amazon is developing a fleet of delivery drones called octocopters.
If that project flies, it won't be long before Target and Wal-Mart will be launching their own air forces. Knowing Wal-Mart, it will probably equip its drones with air-to-air missiles to eradicate the competition.
Dominos Pizza has the DomiCopter, which has already been tested in Great Britain. Soon you will be able to get mediocre pizza in minutes.
At a recent music festival in South Africa, small robots provided beer to fans who placed orders through a smartphone app.
Lakemaid Brewery in Wisconsin recently posted a video of their product being delivered via drones to ice fishermen on a frozen lake in Minnesota. However, the Federal Aviation Administration was not amused and shut down the operation. The brewery, not to be deterred, has started a petition on to get their suds in the sky.
Drones are also being developed to assist in firefighting, search and rescue operations, border surveillance and scientific and environmental research. Yamaha has sold more than 2,600 remotely piloted helicopters for agricultural use in Japan. The drone costs $100,000, weighs 140 pounds, stands three and half feet tall and 90 percent of farmers use it for crop dusting, spot spraying, weed and pest control and fertilization.
Several media outlets have experimented using drones to film news events, meaning, I suppose, that reporters will soon be required to have a background in aeronautics.
But wait just a darn minute.
There is inherent personal and professional danger in praising a federal agency for pursuing a wise and prudent path, but the FAA appears to be doing exactly that.
Currently, the FAA issues domestic drone authorizations on a case-by-case basis, according to published reports. They are limited to government agencies, universities and law enforcement. But now the agency must finalize plans for allowing drones in domestic airspace by 2015 under a law passed by Congress in 2012.
The FAA has set six test sites to review safety issues, but has said it likely will not meet the 2015 deadline.
That’s a good thing. We shouldn’t rush into this.
I’m trying to envision life in my neighborhood with drones flying about at all times of the day and night. Would it disrupt the sense of peace and serenity? Would it be hazardous? I assume drones, like many mechanical devices, fail from time to time.
Would packages left on the doorstep attract thieves? Could drones be used by drug dealers?  Or terrorists?
What if some yahoo decided to pump a couple of thirty aught six rounds into a drone to exercise his Second Amendment rights?
If you lived near an Amazon distribution center, the number of drones coming and going could blot out the sun.
And who’s going to be piloting these things? The same kid who used to deliver your pizza? 
What about commercial aviation? According to a story from UPI, the U.S. has one of the largest passenger fleets in the world and its airspace is significantly more complex than, say, that of Japan, especially at lower altitudes where drones fly, said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA expects 7,500 drone-like craft in the skies within five years of the regulations being set.
“We don’t have a complete understanding of where this might go in the future,” he said, in what could charitably described as an understatement.
Perhaps most importantly, what about privacy? According to the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance.
“Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America,” the ACLU states. “Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government.”
Some would argue that we’re already in a surveillance society. Having a drone watching your every move because someone considers you “a person of interest” would validate that point of view.
In the meantime, I’ll get my own pizza and beer in the fervent hope that we are making sure we remain in control of technology instead of the other way around.
Robert Rector is a former editor with the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times. His columns can be found at He can be reached at

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