Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos isn’t the only one who wants to take to the skies. Most of Hollywood wants drones for making films, police want them to patrol the skies, the National Guard needs rescue bots, journalists want cheap aerial footage, farmers would love unmanned crop dusters, and every college stoner glued to their couch would trade a vital organ for the Tacocopter. In short, everybody wants drones! But there are forces at work that could prevent all that sweet, sweet taco-dropping.
Back when Congress used to actually pass laws, they directed the Federal Aviation Administration to figure out how America could safely deal with an estimated 30,000 humming drones by 2020, through the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012. There are a few technical, social, and straight-up bat-sh*t crazy problems stopping the FAA from legalizing commercial drones [PDF].
1. Technical Limitations
As cities become increasingly dense, the probability increases of a delivery drone crashing into another and dropping a birthday bowling ball on the windshield of a commuter. Researchers, including a number of folks at Cornell, are putting their considerable talents into crash-avoidance software (video below). But we still don’t fully understand the mathematical foundations of how groups of flying objects (like birds) avoid an air pile-up of cascading doom.
MIT researchers suspect there’s a critical speed limit that all flying objects might need to abide by, no matter how good their senses are. These theoretical limits may seriously narrow the radius at which Krispy Kream could deliver a doughnut that is truly “hot and now.”
2. Privacy Concerns
The ever-vigilant privacy hawks (pun intended) at the Electronic Frontier Foundation are concerned that drones could turn America into a surveillance wonderland. Virginia has already proposed a two-year moratorium on drones.
Drones necessarily record their surroundings to navigate jagged city terrain. Even beyond the necessities, the incidental footage they scrape of retail foot traffic and consumer behavior would be advertising gold to a commercial analytics team. Moreover, in the case of something like the Boston bombing, it’s easy to see why law enforcement would want to sequester the video footage of every drone in the area.
“Before countless commercial drones begin to fly overhead, we must ground their operation in strong rules to protect privacy and promote transparency,” said Senator Edward Markey, in a statement related to his prescient bill on commercial drone privacy.
3. People Are Cray-Cray
Watch this video of a camera man ruining a precious moment between a wife and her groom and you’ll understand why humans could be the biggest barrier to a functional drone system.
Because people are crazy, spiteful, and clumsy, the FAA plans some type of pilot certification of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which could become the driver’s license of the 21st century.
In addition to bad piloting, the FAA is worried about both violence to and from drones. Drones have already been perfected for war, so Mexican drug lords are probably already dreaming about little domestic assassinators that can cross the border. On the nuttier side of things, Stephen Colbert profiled a liberty-loving patriot who hunts down law enforcement drones (and tried to pass local legislation to legalize it).
So, as you can see, the ban on drones isn’t a clear-cut case of government stonewalling. We don’t really know how to handle tens of thousands of potentially lethal experimental robotic pilots buzzing around dense cities. Before consumers can get an order of Xanax from an Amazon delivery drone, we might want to make sure it gets to the destination without harming anyone in the process.
More from TechCrunch on Amazon’s drones: