Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Amazon’s drone plan while cool could present public safety issues

Amazon delivery drone
Imagine being able to do all your holiday shopping without ever leaving the comfort of your own home, and then having it delivered to your doorstep within 30 minutes – or the same amount of time it takes for a pizza to arrive.

Or let’s say you remember at the last minute that it’s your wedding anniversary and you forgot to get your spouse a gift. There’s no need to worry. You can place an order online and within 30 minutes your problem will be solved, and you’ll be sleeping in your own bed as opposed to the couch.

During a recent 60 Minutes newsmagazine piece. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos spoke about a new technology they’re developing that would allow drones to deliver small packages to certain homes within 30 minutes.


Amazon officials say the drone technology could be ready within three to four years.

As cool as all this sounds, I believe Amazon’s proposal could lead to several potential safety risks that must be thoroughly researched.

Here are six things from a public safety perspective Amazon needs to consider before it lets lose a team of drones in our midst.

  1. 911 Nuisance: I believe the complaints generated from drones flying over neighborhoods could overwhelm local 911 call centers. Having what appear to be mini-helicopters flying over neighborhoods might cause chaos and confusion. Emergency 911 operators would be busy answering those nuisance calls, and would have less time to respond to real emergencies.

  1. Invasion of privacy: Imagine your family relaxing by your pool, everyone in bathing suits, and a drone equipped with a camera flies over. Not only could be very unnerving, it could lead to a serious infringement on you privacy.

  1. Mother Nature: Mother Nature is very unpredictable. How safe would the drones be flying into the wind or rain?  Could a sudden windstorm blow a drone off course or completely out of the sky?  If so, there is the possibility for personal injury and property damage.

  1. Distraction: Could these drones, which would fly very low, pose a distraction to motorists? If so, there is the potential for serious property damage and accidents to occur.

  1. The Fido Factor: The drones will make noise, which could be unsettling for dogs, cats, horses, and other domestic animals, and may result in extra barking, restlessness, and anxiety for our furry friends.

  1. Restricted airspace: How would Amazon guard against drones flying over restricted areas such as military bases or airports? How would small airports deal with these drones flying nearby? The Oxford Airport, which is not too far from Post’s Waterbury main campus, and smaller airports across the country, do not have air traffic controllers. These drones could interfere with small airport air traffic, which could pose a serious safety risk to pilots.

If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grants Amazon a hearing on its drone proposal, I’d look to see what rights communities have to limit this type of activity.  There should be consideration for limiting the days or times of this activity and the areas where the drones can fly. In other words, can the drones be restricted to flying Monday through Saturday, during day time hours only and be limited to flying through just commercial districts?

If the FAA approves Amazon’s plans, it would be helpful for law enforcement to know when and where the drones will fly in order to prepare for the inevitable barrage of phone calls from worried or confused residents.

No matter what happens, Amazon has certainly generated significant buzz with its drone proposal. But, I have to wonder:  Is there really a need for this? Unless it is a life or death situation, why would someone need their package within 30 minutes? Amazon has said they’d only deploy drones to locations that are in close proximity to their fulfillment centers.

Advances in technology are truly wonderful, but not if the risk to public safety simply outweighs the benefits, and that is what I believe may happen here if proper safeguards are not required.

For all of the reasons listed above, I expect Amazon’s drone proposal will be scrutinized before it ever gets off the ground.

David Jannetty is the Academic Program Manager for the John P. Burke School of Public Service Master of Public Administration at Post University, and a retired assistant deputy police chief with the Waterbury Police Department. Jannetty has more than 20 years of experience in law enforcement, public safety and emergency management.