Editor’s Note: In a December 2, 2013 interview, Peter Singer joined WTOP News Time to discuss Amazon’s announcement of drone-based direct-delivery. Singer identities a number of impediments to a drone-based delivery system, the most significant of which will be FAA regulation. Should such regulation be sorted out, Singer concludes, this system could move quickly from sci-fi concept to concrete reality.
WTOP: Go into more detail, here. If Amazon could somehow pull this off, how would it work?
Peter Singer: The question is more on whether they’ll be allowed to pull it off versus the technical side. Essentially, the concept is, you know, now how you have a person deliver you a pizza or a package that we use small tiny drones hubbed out of their distribution centers to deliver lightweight packages and in large part using things like GPS to find your home.
WTOP: That’s so Harry Potter. What would the FAA need in order to do something like that?
Peter Singer: Well, therein lays the rub. The FAA connects to also questions of insurance, etc., so right now you’re not able to use drones of any size for civilian, commercial uses. There’s also limitations on where you can fly them, below what level, near airports, etc. So Congress has told the FAA, you need to figure this out by roughly 2015 and determine a series of test flights to make this happen. Now the problem is that this is a lot harder in execution and the FAA, which has spent generations literally making American airspace safe, isn’t too excited about creating such a huge change. And it’s been focused more on the airplane-sized ones rather than these teeny-tiny drones. So the Amazon announcement shows that maybe the market is more in that direction.
WTOP: Even if the FAA and some folks there think it is a good idea, the logisitics of figuring this out must be tremendous.
Peter Singer: Oh, certainly. This is a huge concept that they’re laying out there. It’s certainly ambitious – on the other hand, Amazon got its first one million dollars almost 20 years ago by convincing people that hey, this thing called the internet was going to be a big deal. So I wouldn’t count them out on that. The bottom line here is that the technology is moving at this exponential pace, so this fantasy or science-fiction concept of drones delivering things, the technology side of it may come true. What we really have to figure out is what are the rules, laws, and norms that are going to regulate this. It’s not just airspace questions: it connects on issues of law enforcement, to personal privacy, to just annoyance. You may think it’s really cool to have a copter deliver LEGOs to your house within 30 minutes. I may be living next door and be not excited about a drone buzzing across my lawn to deliver those LEGOs.