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Editorial: Game of Drones

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is considering a plan to integrate drones across U.S. national airspace. Several large corporations have proposed a low-altitude control grid, which they would operate, to manage these unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), popularly referred to as drones. For Americans who prefer their skies to be as unpeopled as possible—and for those who don’t like the idea of little propeller-driven machines flying above their homes—this may well inspire some apprehension.

The would-be beneficiaries of an expanded drone program, such as Amazon, among other corporations, have been pressuring the Trump administration to loosen restrictions and speed up the approval process for the commercial use of drones. Their efforts appear to be working. Federal regulators now suggest that drones designed for package delivery could be green-lighted in no more than a few months.

If approved in total, we could start seeing parcels flying over our neighborhoods on the way to their destinations. Even the simplest landscape may soon look more like a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.

We don’t want to sound alarmist (well, maybe a little), but the prospect of perpetually dot-filled skies fills us with dread. Consider: In 2013, Amazon alone shipped an estimated 1.6 million packages a day. If, say, a quarter of these packages were switched to drone delivery from their traditional delivery modes—the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, or FedEx—that would mean about 400,000 drones buzzing around our skies daily. (That’s assuming each drone carries onlyone parcel at a time.) And that’s just from Amazon; others, including Alphabet Inc., parent company of Google, have plans of their own.

Then there are the practical dangers. What happens, for instance, if a drone hits a bird? Birds, after all, know nothing about FAA regulations, and they often interfere with planes when planes are at low altitudes at takeoff and landing. Bird hits drone—poof—and down comes bird and drone. In densely populated areas, this could easily result in injuries. Over roadways, the potential for carnage is real.

Which also raises the threat of terrorism. Most of those drones will be bearing consumer items, but it would seem awfully easy to load one with explosives and fly it into a building or a crowded marketplace. These are the the sorts of questions raised by dronization of American life, and somehow we doubt a roomful of FAA officials have thought about them with sufficient thoroughness.

So sure, you’ll be able to get that blu-ray or pair of sneakers in six hours instead of two days, but is that worth turning the natural beauty of our skies, marked only by the odd distant contrail, into a perpetual swarm of commodified locusts?

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