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Clay Rossi
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Amazon Drones: Flying Blind Into Danger

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On a recent episode of 60 Minutes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that his company has plans to have drone “octocopters” deliver products to customers within 30-minutes of ordering. If you haven’t seen the promotional Amazon video for the service to be called Amazon Prime Air, you can find it here. Notwithstanding how amazingly cool the idea of some flying robot bringing you near instant mail order gratification is, somewhere in the recesses of my brain I can’t help but have a bad feeling about this. I also loved Domino’s “30-minutes-0r-its free” guarantee, and we all remember how that worked out.

I’m not alone in my skepticism. The BBC asked Dr. Darren Ansell, an unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) expert from the University of Central Lancashire about the proposed drone delivery program and he said:

“The UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people. To deliver goods to people’s homes for example in residential areas, the UAVs must overfly densely populated towns and cities, something that today’s regulations prevent.

“Other things to consider are security of the goods during the transit. With no one to guard them the aircraft and package could be captured and stolen,” he said.

Check that again? Did he say “UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people”? Yes, he did. Does Amazon have a legal department? if so, they might want to check out what happened to Roman Pirozek Jr. earlier this year:

A 19-year-old New York City man has died after partially-decapitating himself with his own remote-controlled helicopter.

Roman Pirozek Jr, was pulling a stunt with the chopper at a Brooklyn park Thursday afternoon when he lost control and the RC device flew into his head. The blades sliced off a piece of his skull and slashed his throat.

Pirozek died while he was watching, and personally controlling, his RC helicopter which had a “blade span of 62 inches, with a rotor that spins at more than 2,000rpm.” I’m assuming from my experience in Latin class that the “octocopter” has eight blades, instead of one, that spin somewhere near as fast as the RC helicopter. By my math, that’s 8-times the chance of something really, really awful happening to someone who, unlike Pirozek, is not controlling the octocopter, has never heard of an octocopter, and is likely minding their own business unaware that octocopters on are the loose.  And did I mention that the “UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people”?  Even if the 8-bladed octocopter that is unaware of people doesn’t fly into someone and decapitate them, Murphy’s Law tells use that a copy of War and Peace will fall from 500-feet in the air onto someone’s head, and that the octocopter will stall out in mid-air and fall into rush-hour traffic or into a house or onto a playground.

With Bezos planning to set loose his squadron of octocopters within the next 4-5 years, I’m assuming that he’ll have the whole do-not-currently-have-the-awareness-of-their-environment-to-be-able-to-avoid-flying-into-people thing under control. (Or is he planning to lobby Congress for complete octocopter tort immunity?) I appreciate the sheer awesomeness of Bezos’s dream to bring the future to us today. I also think it would be beyond cool if someone invented a Star Trek phaser or a Star Wars light saber but also realize that in reality it would be a very bad idea if those items were unleashed on the public.

If Amazon Prime Air does come about, I don’t see it ending well.