Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Drone deliveries good PR, but will it fly?

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With characteristic concern for coolness over commercial viability, Amazon.com Inc. chief executive officer Jeff Bezos unveiled a new kind of delivery vehicle Sunday night. It's called an octocopter and it will fly all by itself, attuned to GPS co-ordinates, dropping off goods at customers' doorsteps for same-day delivery.

Or at least that's what Bezos, a consummate PR man, told a wide-eyed Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes. The octocopter unveiling was masterful publicity, properly hyped and well timed for the start of the online holiday shopping season. Yet for all the showmanship, there's reason to believe Amazon is on to something. If nothing else, it's a reminder expanded use of commercial drones is inevitable -- a prospect that's equal parts thrilling and terrifying.

Drones have the potential to be a great boon to law enforcement, emergency workers, commuters, weekend campers -- the list is almost endless. Businesses are only just beginning to dream up commercial applications. If Amazon's idea ever becomes reality, its effect on retail could be pervasive and -- to borrow an adjective from another gifted technology salesman -- magical.

No one wants to stand in the way of a future of instant diaper delivery or the already famous pizza drone. But sometimes the best response to a publicity stunt is a reality check.

First, it isn't clear the gadget Bezos unveiled, known as Amazon Prime Air, would be legal. A lot depends on the details, but the Federal Aviation Administration published a "roadmap" for regulating drones in November that would seem to rule out autonomous vehicles of the kind Bezos described. Even if the company resolves such issues, don't expect drone delivery anytime soon: As Bezos indicated, FAA certification for the devices could be many years away.

Second, as one glance at the octocopter in action suggests, drones are potentially hazardous (as is, to be fair, any flying object with rotors, an electric power supply and five pounds of cargo). Most drones lack the ability to automatically "sense and avoid" other objects, such as airplane engines, tall buildings and small children. And never mind the opportunities the octocopter would present to thieves, unscrupulous neighbours and teenagers seeking target practice.

The third big concern is privacy. That's not an obvious issue with a delivery drone you've basically invited to your home. As a thought experiment, though, imagine a Department of Homeland Security copter flying soundlessly above your neighbourhood, equipped with high-resolution cameras, audio recorders and facial-recognition technology.

That's why getting the right privacy rules in place will be critical. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration -- which typically concerns itself with regulating safety -- declined to include detailed privacy or civil-liberties safeguards in its report last month. Many state and local governments are considering their own privacy laws but that's a cumbersome and probably ineffective approach to regulating technology that doesn't recognize borders. Eventually, Congress will need to get much more aggressive on this front.

If, years from now, drones are buzzing about neighbourhoods, seamlessly navigating the skies and gently dropping off all of life's necessities at our doorsteps, give Amazon a lot of credit for dreaming big and dreaming early. And make sure it has your correct address.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2013 A9

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