The Problem with Amazon’s Drones: Dangerous and they Disturb the Peace

07.09.14

The Problem with Amazon’s Drones: Dangerous and they Disturb the Peace

07.09.14
Amazon

Let’s imagine a world in which we had passenger rail that went everywhere. Imagine that we then had an energy crisis that could take down civilization. In the midst of that, some guy says, “Hey! Wouldn’t it be totally cool beans to build cars and sell them to individual commuters? That way we can spend 10 times the energy per person!” That’s what Bezos is proposing with his Amazon delivery drones.

Yeah, Jeff. You are wrong. Think it through. Pieces like this one in TechCrunch doesn’t qualify as critical analysis. Journalists ask the hard questions.

Drones are inherently noisy, an extreme security risk (bomb delivery with pinpoint accuracy), an invasion of privacy (cameras), they can injure people with their propellers by accident and they can fall out of the sky. Yes, Virginia, accidents happen. I spent 15 years in robotics and automation doing cutting edge stuff. Men have been cut in half by robots.

Software guys have gone right through walls. Molten slag has splashed on a software engineer’s foot. Software has bugs. Motors malfunction. Every part has a mean time to failure, and 100% is not attainable.

On top of that, software can be hacked.

Drones are a serious hazard to civil aviation. Hitting a drone is worse than hitting a bird. Drones have hard metal parts and a dense battery. A drone goes into a jet engine and it’s done. A drone goes into the tail rotor of a helicopter and that helicopter is going down.

A fleet of delivery drones is also the “hive of bees” air defense/offense; and since they are controlled by software they could be hacked to attack aviation with relative ease. The “hive” of drones can take down any aircraft (military or civilian) in the sky just by positioning themselves so nothing can get past them. There is nothing we have today, military or civilian, that can defeat that swarm attack on aircraft. It doesn’t even have to have explosives. Aircraft move fast enough that heavy damage is inflicted by what is basically a rock sitting still in the sky.

Mount a gun on a drone (or on a fleet of them) and you have an assassination system, or an anti-personnel weapon that could take out half the people in a stadium, or wreak havoc at a rally.

Drones mounted with guns and bombs could fly into any building on Capitol Hill, navigate to any location inside the buildings at high speed and kill any legislators or aides they wish. We have no defense against this attack. And no, it won’t be enough to seal all windows and doors and replace all glass with bulletproof glass. Bulletproof glass isn’t proof against everything – the proper term is “bullet resistant.” Fire enough at the same spot, and it will give way. Fire the right round at any spot and it will go through. Standard .50 cal rifles will penetrate an engine block and kill the engine. Yes, they can clear a hole through “bulletproof” glass or lexan.

A drone, or a set of them, could also wait and fly through a temporarily opened door, perhaps with a confederate.

Now, perhaps the radical libertarian nuts reading this will think it’s great to attack Capitol Hill. But you can replace that location with any other, from the Boston Marathon to the Superbowl. A drone isn’t that expensive. Cousin Fred could come after Cousin Clive over lack of beer. Don’t think there’s nothing for the average guy to worry about.

Is that paranoid? Yes, it is. I agree 100%. Unfortunately, we Americans have good reason for paranoia. Drones are what you call your basic “asymmetric weapon system.” Asymmetric warfare is what the military calls “terrorism.” Asymmetric weapons are what the Tarnaev brothers used in Boston. Yeah, I lock my door at night. I don’t live in an alternate universe where everybody’s wonderful. Most people are fine. But it just takes one or two.

A drone mounted rifle is a very effective sniper weapon. It’s all but invisible on radar. It’s nearly invisible in the sky. (Much larger drones are virtually impossible to spot in Afghanistan. Just ask the Taliban about that.) A drone one mile high is silent to us on the ground and the gunshot won’t be loud, if it’s heard at all. On the ground what people will see is someone going down with no clue why.

Drones, you see, are anonymous. Take over some drones, mount bombs or gun platforms on them and there’s nobody to be seen. It could be controlled from hundreds of miles away.

Last, drones are extremely inefficient energy-wise. The only way they make sense is to replace delivery of very light items when the ground vehicle has very few items on it. In this time when energy efficiency is needed to save our planet, why would we do that to ourselves?

I’ve seen astonishing “facts” invented out of the sky to support commercial drones like, (I kid you not) a “statistic” that there are nearly 100,000 freight aircraft every day from companies like FedEx. No, that’s wrong. In 2013, BTS stats showed an average of 1,761 flights per day, 642,628 freight departures in the whole year. At any given time there are fewer than 2,000 aircraft in the sky over the USA. Most people have no idea that there are more cars in one Walmart parking lot at peak time than all the airplanes actually flying over the USA. It’s hard enough to keep track of just the couple thousand planes in the air.

I don’t care how “totally cool” anybody thinks it is to have drones deliver a pizza. It’s not worth it. As for Amazon stuff from Bezos? Excuse me? Books and other hard goods use the existing delivery systems. FedEx, UPS and the USPS are very energy efficient per package. Setting up a ridiculously high energy use way to drop a book on your doorstep is dumb.

Governmental regulations cannot prevent criminal use of anything. But it’s not just criminal use that’s the concern here. The problem is deliberate terrorist use. There’s no reasonable benefit from the use of commercial drones that balances the huge risks and problems.

For search and rescue? Yes. Drones make sense there. There are a few situations where we should use them. But general commercial use is not.

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