Northern Sprites: What’s the deal with drones?

By Sean Willett

When most people hear the word “drone,” they tend to think of a few very specific drones. Particulary the ones currently being used by the United States to carry out extrajudicial killings. Or perhaps they think of any of the many drones in movies, video games and books that are depicted as terrifying murder-robots. Either way, the mental image conjured by the word is rarely a pleasant one, which may be why there has been such a vocal reaction to Amazon’s planned drone delivery service.

Though it will still be a few years until it is up and running, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has announced that the company is working on a service that uses unmanned octocopters (helicoptors with eight rotors) to quickly deliver small packages. They will be able to travel up to 10 miles from an Amazon warehouse, meaning that they will mainly be used in urban centres.

Sounds neat, right? However, a lot of people have reacted negatively to the idea, for a variety of valid and less-than-valid reasons. The less-intelligent detractors of the Amazon drones are the ones calling the service a harbinger of the robot apocalypse. Needless to say, the cat-sized flying barbeques Amazon is planning to use are almost certainly not going to be a threat to our species.

A more common reaction has been people claiming that the service won’t work because people will attempt to shoot the drones out of the sky, steal their packages after they drop them off or otherwise attempt to damage or disrupt the service. Perhaps these people live where mail theft and meaningless property destruction run rampant and folks are allowed to openly fire guns at flying objects, but in most cities these acts would be considered serious crimes, with or without drones. And even if these things do happen, there are many simple ways to counter these crimes — things like GPS, sirens, cameras and more.

There have also been concerns about privacy in a world filled with drones, with members of the U.S. Congress bringing these issues to the forefront. While some of these concerns have been valid, claims that Amazon will attempt to spy on your backyard to see if you need patio furniture seem a little bit overblown. Drones are a tough enough concept for a company to sell even without the threat of espionage.

While “drone” is still a scary word to a lot of people, the idea of a flying robot delivery service shouldn’t be a scary one. Whether or not they actually work is a seperate issue, but we may as well try.

Northern Sprites is a column about video games and technology. It is written by a nerd.

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