Drones will deliver where humans fail
Big tech firms are hoping to use unmanned objects to reach out to people far and wide.
Imagine you are lounging in your living room on a quiet Saturday afternoon. You suddenly feel like having a pizza. You whip out your phone, tap open an app and order one. The doorbell rings. When you open the door, a box of pizza is waiting for you. Except that the pizza delivery guy is missing. Instead an unpretentious drone is holding your package.
This is already a reality in Iceland. Well, kind off. So long as you have sought your Icelandic neighbour's nod to allow drones to fly overhead, you can pick drone delivery for your online purchases. In Australia, Google's parent company Alphabet has secured permission from the local regulator to flag off its drone service. By 2021, Uber drones could drop off your lunch without any fuss. Soon your online orders could be ferried by drones. China's ecommerce giant Alibaba is delivering goods using drones along fixed delivery routes in Shanghai Jinshan Industrial Park.
While regulators have been previously hesitant about permitting drones to fly out of sight, some drone delivery services are now making short detours along fixed routes and beyond the sight of operators. The regulators are trying to strike a balance. Too many rules will kill a nascent industry, while too few will amount to recklessness. In UAE, hobbyists are allowed to fly their aerial toys within sight and in green zones so long as they are not carrying your lunch and are registered. Commercial drone operators that carry packages or take pictures have their own set of rules to abide by.
We think drones might deliver us from unintended problems that previous generation of technologies brought upon us - too much traffic, too much pollution, too little time. Think of the food delivery person who battles traffic hazards, pollution and heat to deliver your lunch on time. Drones can definitely pitch in. But we will have to wait a while before we see commercial drones at our doorstep in densely populated urban clusters. The economics of such flights don't make sense as yet. Add to that the tricky issue of sending these unmanned flying objects to your apartment. A drone hovering near your apartment window sounds plain wrong.
That said, I can already visualise a sky that is busy with drones flying low, delivering all sorts of products - from life-saving drugs to groceries. If cost reduction isn't a sufficient allure, safety of life and property certainly is.
My hometown in India is flooded. My aging relatives are marooned in their homes, waiting for essential supplies like drinking water that is only a few kilometres away. They don't have a sufficient number of boats. Had drones been put into service, we could have swiftly averted the crisis.
However, drones are not immune to humans who have violence or disruption on their minds. Sadly, drones used to disrupt public life are outnumbering those being used for human good. If they can be used to carry supplies and spares for troubled offshore ships, they can also be used for acts of terror. Rogue drones can simply carry gun parts into a country where they can be assembled and used to unleash bloodshed. No need to recruit unsuspecting youth to smuggle contraband drugs across borders or into prisons. Drones have it covered.
If they are being used by aircraft to inspect paint and structural damages, a single drone can demolish an aircraft. It can smash an aircraft's spinning fan blades to smithereens more efficiently than feathered creatures can. Many aircraft have reported a close shave with these little bundles of metal, sensors and lithium-ion batteries. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported nearly 100 cases of drones threatening the safety of aircraft in the country.
It does not take much effort to shut down an airport with a few flying drones bought off Amazon. This is what the Extinction Rebellion, a climate-change pressure group were trying to do at the Heathrow airport and could have accomplished, had the cops not taken preemptive action. However, earlier on, the Gatwick airport was not so lucky. Drone sightings forced the airport to shut down for 36 hours just before Christmas.
The answer to these pesky drones is technology. So, drones are going to keep technologists busy for a very long time - to find an antidote for the very medicine they created. Geofencing is one of the ways to pre-programme drones from sauntering into restricted areas. But what about those that are especially programmed to enter prohibited areas? Radio jamming devices are gearing up to shut off communication between the drones and their ground control stations. We are in an infinite loop of technology fixing problems created by technology.
The skies of the future will be buzzing with drones flying at low altitudes. In that whirring multitude, will we be able to distinguish a well-meaning drone from a rouge one? Today, there is no easy answer. They are undoubtedly mirroring the mix of good and bad in humanity. A drone can solve many problems, but it cannot fix this deep-rooted contradiction in us. It serves both Jekyll and Hyde.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies