Anything can happen
Recently in the comments section of this column, a loyal reader asked: "What is the next big, bleeding-edge thing?"
We are confronted with bleeding-edge things all the time that are changing our lives in one way or another. Mobile phones and the internet — and the combination of the two — are good examples. Robotic assistants are helping out on the battlefields. 3-D printing offers lots of possibilities. And now the NSA is able to store and sift through private information about everyone on the planet. Predictions made in the 1980s about life today missed every one of these fundamental changes.
Some of the things that were supposed to be part of our lives never materialized — how about those electric cars? — while others (driverless cars, hypersonic planes, orbiting hotels, the "Hyperloop") are pie in the sky that someone would like to build just as soon as someone else finds the money for them.
So I can't say for certain which category this latest idea falls into. If it materializes, however, it could change lots of things about the way we live.
The idea is drone delivery. Amazon wants to use what are basically toy helicopters to deliver packages to customers. In this way, goods weighing up to 2.3 kilograms could arrive at a customer's doorstep within 30 minutes of an order being placed.
On the face of it, this is an obvious move that could deliver (sorry) so much convenience. The logical next step from instantaneous access to information is near-instantaneous access to goods. Order an item when you know you'll be at home, and just wait a few minutes for it to touch down in your front yard. Pizza-delivery services will be kicking themselves for not thinking of this first.
"From a technology point of view, we'll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place," Amazon says on its website.
Therein lies the rub. The people who wrote our current laws did not see this coming. All sorts of questions will have to be answered. What altitude and routes will the drones be allowed to fly? How will they navigate? How will they avoid obstacles, such as power lines, vehicles, and humans? Who will be liable in the event of collision, damage, injury, theft, or sabotage? Will the drones have cameras on them to help find the address and record the delivery? What will stop the drones from flying past your third-story window and taking a peek inside? Will some kind of air-traffic control system need to be set up if lots of companies start using drones? How noisy will the drones, and swarms of drones, be? What if people don't want them?
I'm afraid that last question won't be answered. The drones are coming. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has already issued about 1,400 permits for police and government agencies to use drones within the US. Commercial use is expected to be approved in the United States and Australia as early as 2015, and in Europe by 2016. The skies could soon be filled with them.
Convenience has its merits, as does law enforcement, but the opening up of the vertical space in our towns and cities may open up a Pandora's box as well. Are we ready for the future? All we know for certain is that anything can happen.