4.1 Introduction: Amazon Prime Air
A few weeks before Christmas 2013, Amazon, the world's largest e-commerce company, revealed plans about Prime Air, a delivery system that uses drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) to deliver products to customers in 30 minutes or less. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, said on television that the drones could be ready to take flight in 4 to 5 years. Amazon's drones are small, unmanned octocopters or eight-rotor helicopters (helicopters with eight tiny rotors) that use global positioning system (GPS) navigation and have electric motors. The current models have a range of 16 kilometers (or 9 miles), travel over 80 km/h (or 50 mph), and can carry products weighing less than 2.5 kilograms (or 5.5 pounds) (a criterion that covers 86% of the products offered on Amazon). Prime Air could mean quick and efficient deliveries for consumers. Amazon's goal is to make this drone delivery service available to customers worldwide as soon as it is permitted by legislation.
When Amazon first announced the project in a video released in December 2013, a convenient time, just when the holiday shopping season was heating up, many regarded it as a publicity stunt. The company's petition of July 2014, asking that outdoor research and development (R&D) testing for Prime Air be allowed in the United States, sent to the U.S. air safety regulatory agency the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), however, reveals how serious this project is. In the petition, Amazon claims that it has made advancements toward the development of highly automated aerial vehicles for Prime Air, including:
Testing a range of capabilities for our eighth- and ninth-generation aerial vehicles, including agility, flight duration, redundancy, and sense-and-avoid sensors and algorithms; developing aerial vehicles that travel over 50 miles per hour, and will carry 5-pound payloads, which cover 86% of products sold on Amazon; and attracting a growing team of world-renowned roboticists, scientists, aeronautical engineers, remote sensing experts, and a former NASA astronaut.
Although Amazon has clearly invested a lot of capital and time into this initiative, its technical completion and legislative approval might take a long period. As indicated in the petition, existing U.S. laws hinder Amazon's R&D projects. According to the Economic Times (based on anonymous sources), Amazon plans to test unmanned aerial vehicles for deliveries in Mumbai and Bangalore, where it maintains warehouses. India has been chosen because it lacks the more strident regulations on commercial drone usage found in other countries. Regulatory clearances aside, Amazon will have to face a number of challenges to get Prime Air off the ground. Losing communication with the drones or other technical mishaps that cause a drone to crash, possibly injuring people or damaging property in the process, would cost Amazon dearly. The fallout from such an incident would not be limited to India but would in fact ruin Amazon's ambitions to launch Prime Air in general. Amazon itself refused to confirm or deny that it has chosen India as the testing ground for Prime Air. BGR News said its sources inside Amazon in India claim that Prime Air will not be launched in India anytime soon and that they had in fact indicated that a 2015 start may represent an overly ambitious timeline.
Jeff Bezos's announcement on TV not only kick-started a good bit of media attention for Amazon, but also made the idea of drones for popular commercial application suddenly seem like a viable proposition. The drone market nowadays is dominated by military applications, with barely any significant spending on commercial drones (see Chapter 6). Commercial drone space, however, is projected to become a multibillion dollar industry over the next 10 years. Business Insider Intelligence published a report in January 2014 that predicts that there will be U.S. $98.2 billion in cumulative global spending on aerial unmanned vehicles over the next 10 years, with U.S. $11.8 billion of that spending on commercial applications (Rubin, 2014).
Amazon may not be the only company to eventually use drones for carrying everyday items. Drones could be deployed to deliver items such as prescription medication from pharmacies, meals from restaurants, and food from supermarkets. While not able to fly yet due to the FAA restriction, the TacoCopter, designed in Silicon Valley, is already able to deliver tacos direct to people's doorsteps in San Francisco via unmanned helicopters. It is expected that commercial drones will quickly become a reality. The FAA currently estimates that as many as 7500 small commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) may be in use by 2018, assuming the necessary regulations are in place, which they expect by September 30, 2015 (see also Section 4.5). In Europe, Deutsche Post AG, Europe's largest postal service, has already begun, since October 2014, to deliver medication and other urgent goods to the North Sea island of Juist Island (Germany) using unmanned from state and federal transportation ministries and air traffic control authorities to operate in a restricted flight area.
Besides delivery, a wide range of current and potential applications of drones exist. They can be outfitted with sophisticated sensors depending on their particular needs. For example, a thermal sensor is an obvious choice for a fire-lookout drone or a drone patrolling a power plant. Another example of one of the latest developments is the ambulance drone, developed by Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. When the emergency services receive a cardiac arrest call, this drone can quickly deliver a defibrillator to the emergency scene. Via a live-stream video and audio connection, the drone can also provide direct feedback to the emergency services and the people on-site can be instructed how to treat the patient. The drone autonomously finds the patient's location via the caller's mobile phone signal and makes its way there using GPS. The drone can fly at around 100 km/h (or 62 mph), weighs 4 kilograms (or 8.8 pounds), and has a payload of another 4 kilograms (or 8.8 pounds). Regulation is needed to reap the societal benefits of these drones and to deal with the social and ethical issues that these drones evoke.
It is common to make a distinction between public and civil drones. Civil drones are drones for private or commercial use. In Section 4.2, we will discuss some civil applications of drones that seem likely in the near future. A public drone is one that is used by the national, state, or local agencies. In Section 4.3, we discuss the public drones that are used by law enforcement agencies, in particular some applications of police drones. Before these drones can be successfully introduced into society, there is a lot of ground to cover. Although drones are already being used under fragmented regulatory frameworks, there are still major safety, technological, and legislative hurdles to the deployment of drones for general commercial purposes. Next, we will look at various safety (Section 4.4) and privacy (Section 4.5) issues that the deployment of civil and public drones raises. In particular, camera-equipped domestic drones for surveillance have elicited many privacy concerns. Regulation concerning safety and privacy issues will be discussed in Section 4.6, and we will end with some observational conclusions in Section 4.7.
4.2 Civil Applications of Drones
Primary civil applications are monitoring and security, exploration, aid efforts, disaster recovery, entertainment, farming, journalism and photography, and so on. This wide diversity suggests that there are few industries and service sectors that could not potentially be touched by drones. This section considers three civil application areas-recreational use, drone journalism, and precision farming-in more detail to illustrate the potential for drones and related issues that may need attention before deploying drones.
4.2.1 Recreational Use
Drones are popular because it does not require many skills to fly them, so they can easily be used to take pictures and create videos. Significant technological advances and associated cost reduction have made drones appealing to an ever-wider public. For example, the leading community of personal drones, DIYDrones (DIY stands for do-it-yourself), has a robust community of almost 60,000 hobbyists. Recreational drone flying is already a fairly established category in the toy industry. One can, for example, buy more than 100 different drones with a camera in Amazon's Drone Store section, costing from U.S. $50 to $2000. The biggest thing holding drones back today is limited flight endurance. Most drones cannot fly for more than a few minutes. The more expensive drones have a flight time of about 15 minutes.
Probably the best-known drone is the quadcopter helicopter Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 developed by the French company Parrot. The drone can be controlled by a smartphone or tablet and comes equipped with a high-definition camera. The drone was a trailblazer in developing technology that allows toys to be remotely controlled by an iPhone. Its flight time is approximately 12 minutes, it has a maximum speed of 18 km/h (or 11 mph) with a range of 50 meters (or 165 feet), and weighs less than 500 grams (or 1.1 pounds). The Parrot Company refuses to reveal sales figures, but the leading industry website sUAS News claims that 500,000 have been sold worldwide since it was first launched in 2010. The price of this drone is between U.S. $300 and $400.
For U.S. $1000 you can get more advanced drones, such as the DJI Phantom, also popular, which has a flight control system that will automatically control the aircraft so that it returns home and lands without causing injury or damage, a range of 1 kilometer (or 0.6 mile), and a flight endurance of almost half an hour.
Due to the latest technology, drones are becoming smaller and smaller. One of the smallest drones for sale that has a camera is the Hubsan X4, which is 6 × 6 cm (or 2.5 × 2.5 inches). Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) claims that it has developed the world's smallest autopilot. Its goal is to eventually create drones without a controller that are small enough to fit into your pocket. Hence, TU Delft aims to create a tiny autopilot system of 2 × 2 cm (or 0.8 × 0.8 inches) that weighs 2 grams (or 0.04 ounce). Bart Remes, project manager at the Micro Aerial Vehicle Laboratory at the TU Delft, predicts that within 5 years a lot of people will carry a drone in their pocket, for example, to film themselves while they are skiing.
Recreational use of drones is considered to be model aircraft use, and this does not need permission from federal governments in almost all countries. There are some restrictions on its use, though. Most national governments forbid flying a drone higher than 150 meters (or about 500 feet), or within populated areas or airports, or one that weighs more than 25 kilograms (or 55 pounds). Drones must remain in view, and can only be used for recreational rather than commercial purposes. In contrast with the relatively easy use of drones, it takes a lot of time to learn how to fly a model aircraft, which is actually part of the challenge of having such an aircraft. As a consequence, people flying a model aircraft may be more careful than people flying a drone. Since flying a drone is relatively easy, the bar to buying such a drone has become considerably lower. A problem, therefore, is that drones could be a magnet for reckless pilots.
The use of drones to invade someone's private home or business, etc., could potentially be viewed as criminal harassment or voyeurism. The problem is that it would be difficult to find out who is flying the drone, since the operator may well be out of sight and the drone does not have identifying features. Citizens of Vancouver, for example, have already lodged more than 10 drone complaints in the first months of 2014 with the police.
While national governments are investing time and money developing strict standards for commercial drone use, recreational use has largely escaped the regulatory spotlight. Recreational drone users, by definition, are just having fun and may not care about regulations. The activities of recreational drone users are also difficult to monitor. This aspect of use, combined with the increasing availability and affordability of drones, means that these users are likely to pose an even greater threat to safety and privacy than the commercial drone users.
4.2.2 Drone Journalism
On January 1, 2014, spokesman photographer Jesse Tinsley reportedly used his personal quadcopter to capture an aerial view of the annual Polar Bear Plunge which takes place on Sanders Beach on Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho (United States) as a New Year's Day tradition. Because publication of the video constitutes commercial use, the FAA responded, saying that this activity is decidedly illegal, though they do not intend to pursue action against the paper or the filmmaker (and the video is still available). In 2013, the University of Missouri's Drone Journalism Program and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's drone program have been suspended by the FAA until they obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA) that allows them to use drones.
Obtaining a COA for a certain location can take several months, and if one wants to fly in another location, one has to follow the same lengthy process, which is not well suited to journalism, since news is often momentary. Through these actions of the FAA, it has de facto put a ban on the use of drones for news-gathering purposes.
In 2014, 16 major U.S. news organizations, therefore, came together to accuse the FAA of curtailing freedom of the press by restricting the use of drones. The United States prohibits the use of drones for commercial purposes, although the FAA grants rare exceptions for government and law enforcement use by a COA. According to these news organizations, the FAA's position is untenable as it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding about journalism, since news gathering is not a commercial purpose but a First Amendment right. An advantage of using drones for journalism is that viewers can be shown the scope of the news from perspectives that were previously unprocurable, and it also increases the scope for having an observation platform from which to hold a position and monitor the situation instead of just flying over it (Clarke, 2014a), which would not otherwise be possible. Similarly, drones could aid reporting of fires and other natural disasters. Furthermore, drones have the potential for providing data in investigative journalism as well.
Drone journalism can raise specific ethical issues when covering people. For example, University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite states that drones can be very intrusive, for example, when a number of journalists with small drones cover an event in which a mother is grieving over the gruesome murder of her children, or when paparazzi use drones to take pictures or videos of the private retreats of celebrities. Clarke (2014a) calls this "voyeurnalism," that is, voyeurism by journalists: a form of corrupted journalism in which information regarding events and issues is gathered and presented that is not in the public interest, but rather is what the public is or may become interested in. Voyeurnalism with drones will create a paparazzi aloft. Continuous monitoring of celebrities can be undertaken at locations such as the target's front door, and tracking becomes much easier. A growing fleet of drones is forcing celebrities to run for cover even inside their own homes, as cameras swoop in above swimming pools, tennis courts, and balconies. Paparazzi drones have terrorized stars including singer Rihanna and actress Jennifer Garner. Another example of voyeurnalism could be the incident at the World Cup in 2014, when France asked the world soccer organization FIFA to investigate its suspicions that a drone was used to spy on the French national team's preparations for its World Cup opening match against Honduras. It was probably a fan who used the drone, but if a journalist had operated the drone, it would have been voyeurnalism.
4.2.3 Precision Farming
Drones may provide a big lift in precision agriculture, which allows farmers, through the use of information and communication technology (ICT), to micromanage their land and make detailed plans for the work to be done. Precision agriculture refers to two segments of the farm market: remote sensing and precision application (Jenkins & Vasigh, 2013). A variety of remote sensors are used to scan plants for health problems, record growth rates and hydration, and locate disease outbreaks. Precision application, a practice especially useful for crop farm-ers and horticulturists, utilizes effective and efficient spray techniques to more selectively cover plants and fields. Solutions have existed since the 1980s but have not resulted in widespread adoption (Bramley, 2009). This could change with the rapid development of low-cost, open-source drones and advances in camera technology over the last couple of years.
Drones can be programmed to fly low over fields and stream photos and videos to a ground station, where the images can be stitched together into maps or analyzed to gauge crop health. Compared to satellite imagery, drone images are much cheaper and offer higher resolution (Barrientos et al., 2011). Drones can provide farmers with three types of detailed views (Anderson, 2014). First, seeing a crop from the air can reveal patterns that expose everything from irrigation problems to soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations that are not apparent at eye level. Second, airborne cameras can take multispectral images, capturing data from the visual as well as the infrared spectrum, which can be combined to create a view of the crop that highlights differences between healthy and distressed plants in a way that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Finally, a drone can survey a crop every week or every day, or even every hour. A time series animation such as this can show changes in the crop, revealing trouble spots or opportunities for better crop management. It is part of a trend toward increasingly data-driven agriculture. This will also allow for the creation of a historical database, which farmers might use to predict future crop yields and soil health.
The drone developed by InventWorks, Inc. and Boulder Labs, Inc. presents a nice example. This drone, which weighs 2 kilograms (or 4.5 pounds) and has a 1.8 meters (or about 6 feet) wide wingspan, carries multispectral cameras that take high-resolution, geo-tagged photos every few seconds. InventWorks and Boulder Labs claim that the deployment of their drone could potentially save 80% per acre on herbicide costs, which would translate to nearly U.S. $10,000 in cost savings to the average farmer per crop cycle. David Mulla, director of the Precision Agriculture Center of the University of Minnesota, estimates that the use of drones could save U.S. $10-$30 an acre in fertilizer and in related costs by examining the progress of crops while they are still in the ground.
Agriculture could provide the ground for commercial drone applications, partly because operating in rural areas far from crowds, buildings, and airports alleviates privacy and safety concerns. A 2013 study by Jenkins and Vasigh (2013) estimates that future commercial drone markets would be largely in agriculture. Huang, Thomson, Hoffmann, Lan, and Fritz (2013) state that it will be some years before the farming drones are successful, mainly because of the limitations in payload and flight endurance. They therefore think that for the next decade at least, human-piloted aircraft and ground equipment (tractor mounted) will still dominate and drones will only be used to inspect and treat small sections of fields, especially those that large equipment cannot reach.