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We Need to Talk About Commercial Drones.

On Sunday, December 1st, 60 Minutes featured a story on Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, and his plan to introduce drone-based delivery of packages by 2015. Through the interview, Charlie Rose and Bezos talked gleefully about how the new technology will ‘change the game’ of the delivery enterprise. While Bezos explained that the drones planned as delivery makers were created to be ‘autonomous’ – not controlled by human hands – and will find their delivery points by logging GPS coordinates, he admitted that perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the system is the idea of drones suffering failures and landing on unsuspecting people, causing serious damage. He briefly touched on this in the interview:

“This thing can’t land on somebody’s head as they’re walking around the neighborhood, that’s not good.”

He reassured Rose and the viewers that ‘years of additional work’ is needed in order to ensure that the delivery drones are safe and reliable.

The fact is, general domestic drone (UAV) use is nothing very new. It’s a very quickly growing hobby, and looks to become quite the delivery gimmick, with corporations already making plans to follow suit with Amazon’s utilization. There is the ‘Burrito Bomber‘ for one, a UAV created to target the location of your phone as you make an order from it, and drop your freshly-made burrito off without having to wait through traffic. Or InventWorks and Boulder Labs, who plan on making producing drones for farmers to use in order to control invasive plants and watch over their livestock. There will surely be more to come, but the issues that might effect people beyond these businesses don’t seem to be stated often enough.

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CRASHING:

These ideas and implementations may sound fun and quirky to most, however (as even Bezos acknowledges) these small drones do crash. And they crash quite often. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the person (or program) piloting the machine isn’t as cautious in terms of flying, since they are not at any risk of hurting themselves in the process. There is also the factor of sight. UAV’s are operated from screens; your computer, your tablet, or even your cell phone. Visuals from flight are limited, and can even go black at times, increasing the chances for error and an eventual crash.

It will be interesting to see just what kind of programming lies beneath the ‘autonomous’ guidance system Amazon plans to implement within its delivery drones… that is if they ever release any of it to the public. We should all hope that there are rigorous measures taken by the engineers and developers behind the delivery drones, both for our parcels and – more importantly – our houses.

HACKING:

Crashing isn’t the sole worry that will have you listening for humming from the skies. Just like every newly emerging technology used in its early years, drones are going to have their bugs and/or exploits.

Meet SkyJack, a DIY RaspberryPi-based drone with a program hellbent on taking control of your popular Parrot drone. Creator Samy Kamkar elaborates on his website:

SkyJack is a drone engineered to autonomously seek out, hack, and wirelessly take full control over any other drones within wireless or flying distance, creating an army of zombie drones under your control.

SkyJack can be easily downloaded from both Kamkar’s webpage for the project and his Github page. The type of drone that this hack  is unleashed upon is one of the more popular ones, making this zombie attack a serious problem. There will also surely be more of these exploits unleashed into the wild, especially for drones that rely upon WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity.

SPY GAMES:

Most drones come complete with functional cameras that con be monitored from remote locations, and the ones that don’t can easily be altered to carry such devices. This obviously creates a privacy issue.

There are already several corporate surveillance institutions determined to use drones to their advantage. There is also the issue of leaps in the development of smaller drones, some disguised as birds to hide themselves from any suspect.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out in a recent article on drone policy, transparency should be paramount:

While we appreciate the steps the FAA has taken so far, the agency could and should go further to require similar transparency from all drone operators. The FAA has already authorized almost 1,500 permits for domestic drones since 2007, but, despite our two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits for drone data, we still don’t know much about where these drones are flying and what data they are collecting.

There have already been a few companies offering drone-based surveillance services across the globe, and if these companies show a success, it is presumed that U.S. corporations that monetize in snooping will surely look to the skies in optimizing their abilities.

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In September of 2015, Congress has required that the FAA create a set of rules to regulate drones in order for them to safely fly through U.S. skies. Here is the FAA’s ‘Modernization and Reform Act of 2012‘.

Sure, drones aren’t whizzing by us too often at this point in time, but instead of holding our breath for a couple of years – before the guidelines for commercial drones are clearly laid out – we should be asking ourselves these questions and drilling companies who plan on using drone technology, whether its for surveillance, advertising, or even delivering a burrito. The regulations on these machines and the entities controlling them must keep public safety and the right to privacy as the priority, and public education along with an airing of any grievances regarding the subject is the best way we can attempt to achieve this.

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