It was pretty exciting watching Jeff Bezos promoting Amazon’s Prime Air on 60 Minutes before last Christmas. What better place to get a big jolt of free publicity?
Of course, Bezos wasn’t the first to promote the future use of “drones” as speedy delivery systems. He was a full six months behind the folks at Dominos Pizza in the U.K. with their unveiling of the DomiCopter as the next big thing in pizza delivery. My personal favourite is Lakemaid Beer of Wisconsin and the video of their multi-copter delivering a 12-pack to a shack full of parched ice fishing types out on the frozen lake. Was it only my imagination or did those hearty ice fishers bear a striking resemblance to the Swedish bikini beach volleyball team of a bygone era?
The reality check came courtesy of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which quickly airmailed a cease and desist notice to the beerheads, because they actually did fly that little machine over top of a human being within the borders of the U.S. Amazon went to great lengths to make it very clear that their video was made outside the U.S. and that might explain why Dominos would “launch” their program in the U.K. All in good fun, yes, but does it help or hinder the move towards creating realistic regulations governing the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)?
In the U.S., the regulations have been very restrictive – “thou shall not” – while in Canada there has been a more reasoned approach. There has been plenty of noise south of the border directed at federal legislators to make the FAA hurry up and let UAVs fly, without any apparent public dialogue through the mainstream media as to just what this might mean. Meanwhile, on this side of the border, Transport Canada (TC) and a number of groups representing the UAV/drone community are working collaboratively to develop regulations that will work. The big question is where the commercial breakthrough is going to be. Who is going to come up with an unmanned platform that can replace an existing commercial fixed- or rotary-wing operation in such a way that it meets or exceeds the quality of the work done now and does it at a substantial financial saving.
One of the breakout areas has been the adoption of UAVs by Canadian police agencies, principally the RCMP and OPP, for use in rural and remote areas to assist in taking aerial photographs for forensic investigations and highway collision. The ability to put a relatively simple UAV above a scene for a few minutes and capture digital photos and/or video of a scene can be invaluable, especially when compared to the cost of using a helicopter. The news that police in Canada have moved to UAVs as investigative tools produced an outcry in the media from those who somehow see this as a potential invasion of “privacy.” But when it comes to my privacy, I’m much more concerned about the information my cell phone pumps out, not to mention what my credit cards, bank cards, loyalty cards (to name but a few), tell the world about where I go, how I get there and what I spend my money on. If someone wants pictures of me flipping burgers in my backyard, then good luck
It’s not easy to figure out just how firmly the Amazon tongue is stuck into the Amazon cheek. Their Prime Air web page starts with the disclaimer “putting Prime Air into commercial use will take some number of years as we advance the technology and wait for the necessary FAA rules and regulations.” OK, that sounds vague enough, but read down the page and you soon get to this statement – “We hope the FAA’s rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015. We will be ready at that time.” Are they talking about the same 2015 that I’m looking at, which is a lot closer than some years away? Thankfully, Amazon offers an “unbreakable umbrella” that protects you from rain and “everything else.” Does that everything else include space debris and wayward UAVs? Just asking.
Amazon even offers a book –“UAV Pilot – How to Be Ready for the Coming Drone Pilot Job Boom,” based on the premise that “everybody,” from media outlets to public safety agencies to colleges and universities is going to be clamouring for UAVs once the skies are opened up and where are all the pilot/operators going to come from. Buy the book, take the course and reap the benefits of the brave new world. One small irony, however, it’s an e-book. Ah, technology.
Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.
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