Amazon wants dedicated airspace for drones to deliver express packages to customers.
Facebook, which gave serious thought to launching its own $500 million satellite to provide Internet access to the developing world, instead may launch huge solar-powered drones with wingspans the size of a Boeing 737 to link the currently unconnected in remote areas.
Suddenly, it seems like the Internet is developing a serious footprint IRL — geek-speak for “In Real Life.”
Is this the future? Are we going to be ducking drones delivering the latest must-have gadget to the guy down the street willing to pay for Amazon Super Prime (or whatever they’ll call the 30-minute delivery option)?
Will shadows from mammoth Facebook drones blot out the sun as they pass overhead on the way to make sure even the most remote shepherd can post a selfie with his dinner?
While it’s unclear where the next online intrusion into the physical world might happen, it is clear that we need to be thinking about how to safely and securely integrate this developing technology into a world that heretofore has tried to keep the Internet safely confined to bits and bytes.
Amazon’s proposal is to divvy up airspace access for drones based on the individual drone’s mission and capabilities. Airspace under 200 feet would be only for low-speed, localized traffic. Airspace between 200 and 400 feet would be reserved for high-speed, autonomous drones with sophisticated sense-and-avoid technology. Drones in this lane would have to be able to communicate with one another and with automatic air control facilities.
All of this drone traffic would need to learn to co-exist with commercial, civilian and military traffic, and vice versa, especially in crowded urban areas. If Amazon is right, within 10 years there will be a lot more drone traffic than traditional air traffic.
The Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t even begun to think at this scale, and that could prove to be a problem. The FAA’s long-awaited proposal for commercial drone flight regulations doesn’t even anticipate flights out of the pilot’s line of sight — much less autonomous drones.
The government needs not just to catch up, but to get well ahead of the curve. Regulations need to anticipate where technology is heading, as well as how to mitigate risks that the private sector might not want to address — like what could happen if a hacker takes over a drone in a crowded traffic pattern over a dense urban area.
Government has not proven adept at such challenges, as the Internet has repeatedly proven. Regulations governing online activities — from banking to gambling to commerce to pornography — tend to lag way behind easy availability online.
Some would say that’s a good thing and that it gave the Web time and space to grow and establish itself away from government interference. That may be well and good in the virtual world, but when technology has physical, real-world impacts, people cannot afford for the government to get caught flat-footed.
The future is coming, and it appears to be moving far faster than many, especially many in government, are prepared for.