A Philosopher's Blog

Drones to Your Door

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 4, 2013
MQ-1L Predator UAV armed with AGM-114 Hellfire...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a clever move to grab media attention on Cyber-Monday, Amazon announced its plans to develop drone delivery. The United States has, of course, been leading the world in delivery via drone, although we have mostly been delivering missiles Amazon proposes to make drones a much more welcome site—they will be bringers of what you want, rather than bringers of death.

On the face of it, drone delivery is certainly possible. After all, the basic technology already exists and Amazon has deep pockets and political influence. However, the drone delivery system does face some challenges.

One obvious practical challenge is getting the drones to safely and reliably travel from their launch sites to the delivery site and then back. Doing this will require that the drones avoid hitting things like towers, trees, power lines, other aircraft, birds and people. While the drones are probably going to be relatively small and slow moving (compared to the military drones made famous in Afghanistan and Pakistan), a drone could damage property and injure animals and people. However, there seem to be no compelling reason to believe that a drone could not operate as safely as a delivery truck, which is a reasonable standard for drone operations. This will probably require special drone routes that are well clear of conventional airspace and perhaps specialized landing spots for drone deliveries. After all, having a drone just plop down at someone’s front door could be very problematic.

Another obvious practical challenge is the fact that people will interfere with the drones. In some cases, people (mostly kids) will try to catch or knock down the drones for the malicious fun of it. In most cases people will be trying to hijack the drones in order to steal their cargoes. This interference might be done by technological means such as trying to jam the drone or even take control of the drone. Naturally, people will also resort to lower tech methods, such as hitting them with thrown (or shot) objects.

Because of the threats presented by people, Amazon will need to ensure that their drones are protected from jamming and hacking. They will also need to find ways to deter people from attacking the drones. While people are usually reluctant to attack a human delivery driver, the threshold for willingness to go after a drone is certainly lower. One obvious option is to equip the drones with cameras that record the area around the drone, thus enabling videos of thefts and attacks to be sent to the police. This option does, of course, raise moral concerns about drones flying about cities recording from on high. After all, the drones will have a vantage point that will allow them to see into fenced yards and in other areas where people normally expect privacy. Amazon could handle this by erasing the recordings of the drones if no incident takes place or by limiting access to the drone recordings to the police. Of course, it seems likely that police and security organizations might very much want access to the drone recordings—it might turn out that the NSA will use the Amazon drones like they now use our phones—just another tool for the police state.

In addition to the moral concern about spying, there is also a minor moral concern about the fact that drones provide such rapid delivery. In some cases, this could be an important service—a person could, for example, get a critical part needed for their business or car (perhaps delivered right to the car). In other cases, this could simply be yet another way for people to fail in the virtue of patience.

As to the question of whether or not I will use it, the answer is probably “yes”—if only once and only to see that drone touching down in my driveway, chopping up wayward squirrels into chunks with its whirling blades.


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  1. […] Drones to Your Door (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 8, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    Another machine putting people out of work? Perhaps the Luddites were correct? I also think we’re being sent a not-so-subtle message, by our “government”: we have the GPS coordinates for your home, and we can easily send an armed drone to take you out — when and if necessary. But not to worry… meet Droney the Friendly Surveillance Drone: http://www.issuesandalibis.org/drone-industry-planning-public-relations-campaign-key-kids-its-me-droney-the-friendly-surveillance-drone.jpg

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