Commercial and Civilian Drones: Flying in the Air By You?


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Lately, a diverse array of drone related stories have been circulating the news world.

Also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, drones are mainly developed and used for military purposes. In the news, accounts of controversial anti-terrorism attacks have become prevalent, as have stories of authorities implementing constitutionally wary surveillance practices.

One viral drone story this month had nothing to do with politically induced violence or government spying, but with typical American consumer life:’s plans to deliver products without getting caught in traffic.

On 60 Minutes, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, laid out the preliminary guidelines of their delivery drones: they will be ready by 2015, equipped with GPS, capable of navigating a 10-mile radius from an Amazon “fulfillment center,” able to hold a package up to 5 lbs. (which makes up 86 percent of orders), and deliver packages within 30 minutes after an order has been placed.

Since the 60 Minutes segment, countless media outlets, from the Japan Times to the LA Times, have published follow-up accounts of Amazon’s technological aspirations. Imagining a near-enough future where little flying robots quickly bring us our books, stationary, and toys, the ongoing media attention has inspired awe for some, but deliberate doubt for others. John Donahoe, CEO of Ebay, dismissed his competitor’s robotic delivery plans as “long term fantasies.”

Other sources brought up potential issues ranging anywhere from the bureaucratic (i.e. insurance and Federal Aviation Administration regulations) to the physical (drones hitting into humans or buildings, children shooting drones with BB guns) to the logistical (difficulty navigating dense urban settings, inability to charge batteries).

Considering it was just a preemptive announcement of Amazon’s project, not even an actual launch, the range of different interpretations indicate that people have reacted strongly and thought deeply about such what such technological transition would mean– even before it has occurred.

In addition to drone topics becoming breaking news, drones themselves are used as tools to gather materials for presenting breaking news. For instance, to record videos of Typhoon Haiyan’s destruction, British photographer Lewis Whyld launched a drone over Tacloban in the Philippines – instead of reserving a seat on a military helicopter that could be used by a needed relief worker. The footage, which was aired on CNN, discovered two bodies that authorities later recovered.

The Associated Press and News Corporation also survey disaster destruction using drones, while reports suggest that European paparazzi use these machines to spy on celebrities. Two drone journalism academic programs opened at the Missouri School of Journalism and University of Nebraska, though both programs are currently on hold by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as the schools need to apply for certificates of authorization.

Overall, the spreading use of commercial and civilian drones in the US has meant more work for the FAA. Recently, the organization implemented a regulation in rural Oklahoma, where farmers use these flying machines to monitor livestock and survey crops. To do so legally, the FAA permits these farmers to fly drones only on their own properties, below 400 feet, and not within 3 miles of an airport without telling an operator.

All around, people of assorted professions are innovatively adapting drones to assist their livelihoods. Archaeologists in Peru use small flying machines to survey sites, protect them from damage and make 3D maps. Agents responsible for pest control in the Florida Keys were considering using drones this summer to spot mosquito breeding grounds. Yo Sushi!, an international chain, is looking to start running food orders with these flying robots to tables, while Dominoes tested pizza-delivery drones a few months back.

Recreationally, certain hobbyists have grown fond of personal drones. For fun, some people take aerial videos of neighborhoods and post their productions on YouTube. Back in the corporate pundit chamber, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt told The Guardian in April that he thinks drones should be banned from everyday personal use, on the grounds of preventing terrorist attacks, plus regular people should not be able to spy on one another out of spite.

While countless have argued the hypocrisy of comparing Schmidt’s opinion with Google’s privacy records, there is some truth in the matters that prompt his words. As drone technology gets cheaper, more publicly accessible and professionally applicable, the flying robots will make their way into more civilian and consumer areas. Whether or not our surrounding airspace is going to become saturated with flying drones that nuance an omnipresent robotic hum, or they are an overly speculated fad that will continue to legally develop only in niche fields, these machines are versatile tools that entail a massive range of novel, and powerful capabilities.