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The Trouble With Our Drone-Filled Future

Technology
The Trouble With Our Drone-Filled Future

Imagine craving a taco and suddenly having one delivered right to your front door. Or having the ability to keep an eye on your kids as they run around the neighborhood. These situations and more are now possible with the use of unmanned drones.

Once thought to only be used by the government, drones are now being deployed for a wide range of reasons. Current uses for drones abound already, and they are only likely to increase exponentially in the future.

The U.S. startup Matternet, for example, is working to create a drone network that would transport lifesaving products to rural and under-developed areas. A similar transport drone operation, backed by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, would deliver vaccines to destinations that are hard-to-reach or recently struck by disasters.

Drones are being used to monitor the location of wildlife to protect certain species from being wiped out by poachers. They are also being used as an active, constant and pre-programmed search party to help locate missing individuals. Farmers could benefit from drones who could use them to water and fertilize crops to boost harvests. Drones could also be used to capture picturesque scenery and live events, such as live sports games and music festivals, and share the footage with others.

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In addition to drones being used for purposes in law enforcement, firefighting, disaster relief, wildlife conservation and more, can drones serve household-friendly purposes as well?

A Drone For Your Home?

Inside the home, robots that can move around performing tasks unmanned, just like drones, already exist, except they don’t fly. For example, in 2002, iRobot released the Roomba, a series of automatic vacuum cleaners with sensors that allow it to vacuum an entire room on its own without bumping into walls or furniture. In 2012, Bosch introduced Indego, an autonomous robotic lawnmower that cuts your grass without any supervision.

Drones also have applications outside and around the home as well, particularly in the areas of home delivery systems and surveillance.

In a 60 Minutes interview in December 2013, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the concept of Amazon Prime Air, which promises to deliver packages that weigh five pounds or less to certain destinations in under 30 minutes. As the two-day delivery guarantee is already a treasured benefit for Prime subscribers, this new delivery network could further break the mold of instant online shopping gratification.

Got the munchies? Several drones have already been suggested and even put into practice that could appease your cravings. In the UK, a Dominos franchise released a video of a drone delivering two pizzas in the company’s signature Heatwave bags. The Burrito Bomber, launched in Sunnyvale, Calif., and created by two Yelp engineers, can fly burritos to a nearby destination once it has a little help getting into the air.

A Wisconsin brewery delivered a case of beer to fishermen on Lake Waconia in Minnesota before being shut down once the video went viral online. And the Tacocopter, while turning out to be a hoax, was another drone rumored to carry tacos airborne from one place to the next.

However, the prevention of commercial applications of drones in the U.S.—as well as some practical and technical issues to work out, such as keeping the food warm—currently keeps these inventions officially under wraps.

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Where drones are not commercially regulated, however, is Australia, and Australian textbook rental startup Zookal will begin making deliveries in Australia to an outdoor location of the customer’s choosing. This makes the operation the first commercial use of fully automated drones worldwide. The company plans to bring their services to the U.S., striving to bring the delivery system over by 2015.

As for surveillance, one drone in the works is able to follow your child to school to make sure they arrive and come home safely. Others in development can monitor just about any household task or event that may need it. For example, drones could monitor children playing outside in the backyard and transmit those images to monitors inside the home so parents could still keep an eye on them. Drones could even walk your dog for you.

The Risks And Drawbacks Of Drones

Drones are not without their risks and drawbacks. For starters, the battery life on these devices, particularly if they are used to transport something, is not very long, so their practicality in this space would need to be explored and developed (and already is). Another fear would be that people will shoot the drones down—non-supporters of drones or otherwise—which could mean loss of money for companies and loss of paid-for products for customers.

One of the biggest fears is safety. Drones are still not perfect when it comes to dodging obstacles, such as buildings, telephone wires, birds and even the people they are trying to serve. Plus, the risk of drones malfunctioning and falling out of the air means potentially hurting people standing or driving down below. This could be especially disconcerting in bad weather, which could hinder the operations of drones and render them useless during certain times of the year.

Another major concern is security and the potential for unnecessary and unwanted surveillance. Some law enforcement agencies have already gotten in trouble for using drones to monitor U.S. citizens without a warrant when they are suspected to be part of a crime. Drones have even been reported to peer into the windows of homes with cameras running and recording.

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Worst of all, opponents of drones are merely unhappy with the potential for complete surveillance of American citizens, which, in their opinion, would destroy what it means to live in a free country. Having some company or government agency able to watch people—both in and out of their homes—at all times is something that these drone providers will have to navigate very carefully.

Drones in and around the home are coming—and some are already here. Whether the fears of drones are eventually realized as they become more prevalent in everyday life is up for debate, but the world could truly be a different place once these devices are able to fly around your neighborhood, and even to your own doorstep.

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