Future Tense

Who Cares About Amazon Prime Air?

Drones’ real potential isn’t in delivery—it’s in democratizing information.

Drone delivery, Switzerland
A Swiss Post and Swiss WorldCargo Matternet drone flies during a presentation near Fribourg, Switzerland, on July 7, 2015.

Photo by Pierre Albouy/Reuters

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Wednesday, July 22, New America will host an event in Washington on the use of drones for property rights, human rights, and development. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

They have crashed onto the White House lawn, are omnipresent at festivals and weddings, and recently have been seen helping save children from drowning. Drones are evolving from novelty to part of our culture. For an unapologetic drone-pusher like me, that’s a good thing: People are increasingly willing to accept that this new technology can be used for a wide range of positive things, not just missile strikes in the Middle East.

But as drones’ image grows friendlier, I’ve begun to worry that people are focusing too much on what they may do in the coming decades and not what they can do today. This emphasis on the future may be exciting, but it means too few people are contemplating what the technology is currently capable of—and when the same people who drive technology and security policy make that mistake, it’s troubling. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this problem than the fervor with which delivery drones have been greeted.

Many envision a future in which skies are crowded with buzzing multirotor aircraft depositing packages of comic books, paper towels, and toothpaste on one’s front door. News outlets leap on every drone-delivery scheme, from the practical (delivering special items in remote areas of the Swiss Alps) to the ridiculous (tacos). Even some anti-terrorism analysts and policymakers appear less interested in drones’ proven potential than they are in how terrorists could use drones to carry explosives or anthrax.

But delivery is boring. Much more exciting is drones’ ability to allow anyone to gather aerial data. Yes, that’s right—gathering aerial data is exciting! If drones are going to change our society in the very near future, it won’t be because we got our Kleenex delivered from the air, instead of by truck. It will be because they democratized access to information.

For one thing, drones are already really good at taking photographs and shooting video, but they’re still rather lousy at delivering things, whether that object is a pizza or a small bomb. Most drones accessible to civilians still can’t lift much more than 1 or 2 pounds. Battery life remains short, with heavier packages only decreasing a device’s possible flight time, speed, stability, and range.

Plus, we just don’t have the sophisticated sense-and-avoid technology that would allow an autonomous drone to successfully and safely navigate to your door. Today’s consumer-available drones remain effectively blind, and no one has yet developed software that would allow the devices to reliably avoid quotidian obstacles like trees, power lines, sudden and strong weather, and overcurious dogs. While such systems are in the works from a number of different sources, from Amazon to NASA, they’re not expected to be online in the near future.

Drones also need to avoid manned aircraft and other drones in the air, a problem that will only grow worse as the technology becomes more popular. We’ll likely need some kind of traffic management system, which can work in tandem with autonomous sense-and-avoid technology, to avoid unpleasant aerial mishaps. While quite technologically feasible, such a system will still take a while to implement: NASA, which is partnering with Silicon Valley drone operating system Airware, expects to release a prototype of an unmanned aerial system traffic management system by 2019.

Current drone delivery experiments receive supercharged press coverage heralding everything short of the death of the current postal system, but a perusal of these projects’ actual accomplishments and goals paints a much more modest picture. A joint drone delivery-test experiment in Switzerland, organized by the Swiss postal service and drone delivery startup Matternet, has received plenty of press—but a media handout by the group emphasized that the project’s current goals are none too extravagant, focusing only on successfully performing a few special deliveries in remote areas. In the release, the organizers of the event speculate that “specific applications will be realistic within five to ten years.” In October German delivery company Deutsche Post DHL experimented with using a drone to deliver packages to the island of Juist. The unmanned aerial vehicle managed to make the roughly 7-mile trip, but only after multiple delays due to inclement weather conditions. Closer to home, the Federal Aviation Administration approved an experimental pharmaceutical delivery scheme in West Virginia on Friday, but the event only lasted for that day.

And then there are the regulatory barriers. Much to Amazon’s irritation, commercial use of drones remains a legal gray area in the United States. While FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker claimed in June that his agency would finalize rules permitting widespread drone use by private companies before summer 2016, the FAA’s past delays have made many drone proponents skeptical. What’s more, the rules proposed in February would bar drone flight beyond the line of sight of a pilot, a restriction that would rule out Amazon’s drone deliveries. Final rules would have to accommodate the advanced sense-and-avoid and beyond-line-of-sight technologies that Amazon is experimenting with. 

So why the fascination surrounding delivery drones? Part of the explanation might be because it’s easier for human beings—even really smart ones—to conceptualize physical objects moving in physical space than it is to conceptualize data. In his book Tubes, Andrew Blum observes that as the Internet has become a more pervasive part of our lives, people have viewed it with increasing abstraction (and confusion).

The same abstraction challenge is likely happening with the potential uses of drones. It’s easier to contemplate a tangible object, such as a drone, than it is to conceptualize the information it can be used to gather. The data that drones collect can be easily described in accessible ways—a high-definition map, a single photo of a destroyed home, an image created with a special sensor showing the health of a soybean field. But those of us in the drone space have yet to figure out good ways of showing and explaining these images to the general public.

Having your groceries daintily delivered from the sky fires the imagination more than the quiet procedure of UAV mapmaking or photography. Using drones to find missing hikers or to help indigenous people create cheap maps may seem more than adequately cool to drone nerds, but it isn’t exactly dramatic enough to fire the imaginations of people who aren’t already invested (financially or emotionally) in the technology.

Truthfully, delivery drone–mania isn’t as innocuous as it may appear. For one thing, the emphasis on delivery over data could encourage companies and technologists to focus on a narrow area at the expense of the true possibilities. To get the most of out drones and their potential for giving everyone access to aerial data, we need people who aren’t already highly invested in the drone space to start thinking of solutions, operating off the principle that a bigger pool of users will come up with even better ways to use them. 

Second, when smart foreign policy and security analysts fail to imagine the full spectrum of drone technology, they’re liable to miss developing threats and trends. Foreign policy types regularly ask me how worried I am about the terrorist threat from small drones, from spritzes of anthrax to the delivery of small bombs. Few seem to be—at least publicly—discussing the challenges posed by criminal and terrorist groups capable of using cheap, consumer-available drones for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. The NYPD is concerned about the usage of consumer drones for terrorism but appears to be thinking almost exclusively about how one might attach a gun or a bomb to the flying device. A January Wall Street Journal report on drone terrorism focused largely on explosives and guns, but it at least made cursory mention of how drones might be used for malevolent intelligence-gathering. Former British Labour Party security minister Alan West in January went on the anti drone-terrorism war path, but only mentioned potential physical attacks, rather than intelligence-linked concerns.

While an attack by an anthrax-bearing drone doesn’t seem likely to happen soon, drones are already being used in the real world for some suspect info-gathering purposes. ISIS is reportedly using a small fleet of inexpensive commercially available drones. Intelligence collection seems to be the most likely motive behind a recent spate of still unexplained drone flights over French nuclear power plants. And an enterprising U.K. thief has used a heat-detecting UAV to identify marijuana cultivation. Analysts should be giving intelligence-based threats from small drones at least as much consideration as physical threats—not giving them a cursory mention or failing to consider them at all.

Both the general public and defense analysts need to be careful about focusing on blue-sky ideas about package delivery and weapons-packing drones to the exclusion of imagining what impact democratized aerial data may have on our societies and our security. Drones are doing all kinds of handy things for humanity, even in the infancy of the technology. They’re being used to protect indigenous land rights, improve agricultural yields, create impressive works of video art, and more, and these applications are only going to expand in the very near future.

Delivery drones may be cool, but so were flying cars at the 1964 World’s Fair. They may someday even be revolutionary, but the technology we have today simply isn’t there yet and is unlikely to be in the very near future. The data-gathering applications of drones are even cooler—and they’re happening right now, all around us.