Land of drones: Robots over America could change everything

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Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of Amazon.com, told “60 Minutes” Sunday that small drones — unmanned remote-control flying vehicles — could make deliveries to homes and businesses in five years, assuming the Federal Aviation Administration gets on board.

Mr. Bezos said the mini aircraft would deliver packages weighing up to 5 pounds within a 10-mile radius of Amazon warehouses. From the moment an order is made to the time it touches down on someone’s front porch, the whole transaction could take as little as 30 minutes. The only thing that could be faster, comedian Stephen Colbert pointed out, was walking into a bookstore and buying the book.

The Amazon scenario depends on FAA compliance with a congressional mandate to develop rules to integrate unmanned aerial craft into the nation’s airspace in 2015. You can then multiply Amazon’s thousands of delivery drones by competing retailers, private investigators, corporate snoopers and law enforcement agencies that will seek to use similar technology and crowd the nation’s lower airspace — not to mention, in some cases, compromise personal privacy.

Even if the FAA meets the deadline for writing new rules to cope with this technology, the tens of thousands of drones in the air could make enforcement impossible. Crashes would be inevitable, and some of the accidents would result in death, injury or property damage on the ground.

But there also could be benevolent uses for drones, beginning with the enhancement of information needed by police and firefighters to respond to emergencies and the improved ability of news organizations to cover an event. So, like many cutting-edge technologies, this one can cut both ways.

Ready or not, an innovation with untold applications is taking flight. With a major corporate enterprise like Amazon eager to give them a try, the brave new world of drones is practically here.


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