Over the past week, a great deal has been written about Amazon's plans to use unmanned aerial drones to deliver packages starting sometime after 2015. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made the announcement last Sunday on "60 Minutes," where he showed a video depicting an "octocopter" taking off from an Amazon distribution center to deliver a package (up to 5 pounds) to someone's backyard. Bezos told Charlie Rose of "60 Minutes" that he thinks Amazon will be able to use these drones to deliver packages within a half-hour of the customer placing the order if the customer is within about 10 miles of a distribution center.
Bezos will have to wait until at least 2015 before new FAA rules concerning drones go into effect. Some say it will take a lot longer than that for the technology to become feasible, but it is merely a matter of time before commercial drones become a common reality.
Drones are already flying over our skies and the Federal Aviation Administration this year published its "Roadmap for Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System" to ensure that regulatory and safety systems are in place to make sure that these drones don't crash into each other, other aircraft or people and things on the ground. The agency has established locations where operators will be permitted to test unmanned aircraft.
Drones may also be coming to our roadways. Google (GOOG) and some car companies are working on "autonomous vehicles," which means the day may come when we have cars and trucks on our roads and aircraft in our skies piloted by computers instead of people.
So, in addition to dispatching unmanned octocopters, Amazon could someday dispatch driverless delivery trucks to our homes. From a safety perspective, this could be a good thing. While there are no doubt risks associated with unmanned cars, trucks and airplanes, there is also the possibility of reducing the role of human error.
As a former pilot and current car driver, I can say from personal experience (and studies) that human error or bad judgment is the major cause of most accidents on the ground and in the air. Sure, there are accidents caused by mechanical or computer malfunctions, but a lot more are caused by pilots or drivers who are inattentive, tired or just making bad decisions.
When I was a pilot, there were times I had to make tough calls on whether to take off in questionable weather conditions. I always erred on the side of caution and am happy to report that I have an equal number of takeoffs and landings. But there are many cases where a bad decision by a pilot or vehicle driver resulted in a very bad outcome.
So as we worry about Amazon drones falling out of the sky or self-driving cars crashing, let's not forget that our current local delivery systems -- human-operated trucks and vans -- are far from risk-free. And, yes, we should be concerned about the noise and visual pollution of flying drones, but delivery trucks can also be noisy and ugly, and they consume fuel and contribute to congestion.
His group has so far mostly focused on the privacy implications of government and law enforcement use of drones. But self-driving cars and trucks have also raised privacy concerns. If you've ever seen one of Google's self-driving cars, you may have noticed the rotating range finder on top, which is constantly scanning the environment around the car to make sure it knows what's nearby. It's my understanding that Google maintains a database of what those cars see so it can know the difference between a tree near the road and a person.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.