Drones were something of the future once. They were secretive, unmanned flying machines that were both scary and out of the ordinary. Now drones are ubiquitous. They perform at TED showcases and other innovation events, whizzing above audiences and landing on speakers. Recently, drones have been the stars at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where companies demonstrated how they could hover for hours in Las Vegas. Missing drone flyers have even popped up in Silicon Valley neighborhoods.
We are at a natural point of reflection on how we fly drones. Like any technology, drones are used wisely or stupidly. The companies, engineers and designers, who create and reimagine drones, must pay closer attention to mounting regional and federal legislation and they must also consider how the general public will use them as well, which is trickier.
For years, the U.S. government and others have employed a variety of unmanned flying machines for reconnaissance, border patrols and unsavory missions. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers tied bombs to balloons to fly over enemy territory. Surveyors have used drones to map out uncharted geographical terrain for decades. But drones have generally remained out of the consumer eye.It wasn’t until Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos hinted at drones delivering packages on Sixty Minutes two years ago that unmanned flying machines hit the mainstream radar hard. Then the media paid much closer attention to the possibilities of how drones can play a bigger role in consumer technology.
Bezos asserted his company would one day deliver groceries and other packages with drones. Suddenly, there was buzz, a sense of excitement and talk of the potential of what drones could do. Imagine consumers getting any product they wanted in less than 30 minutes. There were stories about drones delivering pizza, drones capturing great aerial photos at weddings and even about drones dropping off beer at football stadiums. Fun, harmless, even helpful.
The serious-minded theorized that drones could go to dangerous and unreachable places where emergency workers cannot enter like smoky areas or radiation zones. They hypothesized that drones, equipped with 3-D printers and robotic controls, could even fly into such areas to make essential repairs or even carry out victims if needed. Extremely beneficial.
But what exactly do you do about drones when stalkers fly them to spy on victims or paparazzi snap exclusive pictures of celebrities above their homes? When you’re outside barbecuing in your backyard, you think about annoying mosquitoes and flies, not drones. The problem has become serious and invasive in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation to prevent paparazzi from flying drones above private property. Plain headshaking.
We have learned to expect surveillance cameras in public buildings and streets. But surveillance cameras on drones shake our normal expectation for privacy. Suddenly, privacy is not a given.
It is true. We fly drones to do so many unexpected good things. With drones, we now have beautiful images that showcase our incredible planet, and we now have valuable data about once unreachable terrains, from Antarctica to the Mohave Desert. We now drop off food and needed medicine and water in remote and inaccessible places.
But we also fly drones to do so many unexpected things that interfere with privacy and sensibility. The two ideals rub the wrong way. Surely, common sense plays a role in how drones are used.