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What's in a name? Drone aircraft, or 'Unmanned Aerial Systems' (UAS) have developed infamous ignominy for their name in their short history, yet in the commercial world, a name can mean everything in turning an idea into a business success. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is one of a growing band of individuals taking a large gamble that the public perception of drones can be changed over the next five years. The technology that has become infamous as a means for projecting military power could soon be delivering packages to your doorstep within 30 minutes of ordering.
Critics accused Bezos of using CBS' "60 Minutes" show to deliver an extended promotion of his company through an announcement about something which does not exist. However, the use of this technology to create a more efficient delivery system is a very real possibility, all be it one which faces severe challenges.
The use of drone technology is not a new development. Anyone who has enjoyed the sweeping panoramas of the action during the recent Ashes Series in Australia, or un-wrapped a remote- controlled helicopter that can be flown with a smartphone app for Christmas, will be using technology developed by a growing army of enthusiasts for drone technology. In Germany, donor kebabs are already delivered via the 'Donercopter', while California has the 'Burrito Bomber'.
In the public sphere, UASs are already in extensive use by police, firefighters, and journalists. Three police forces in the UK already use UAS for surveillance at large events; they were an integral part of security for the 2012 London Olympics. Recent bushfires in Australia's Blue Mountains were mapped using drones; one journalist used the 'Occucopter' to provide live coverage inside the camp of 'Occupy Wall Street' in 2011.
Bezos may have pulled off the ultimate publicity stunt with his early announcement of Amazon's intentions to use drones, but it is likely that within the next decade his vision for the commercial expansion of the UAS market will be realised. Commercial hopes are high for the exploitation of this technology, with research firm Teal estimating that the market could be worth £55bn within the next ten years.
The commercial use of UAS is currently banned under US and EU law, although it is allowed in Australia. The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) recently announced the provisional granting of test licences to locations in six states (Nevada, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, New York, and North Dakota). However, the FAA also expressed concern that the already congested airspace of the United States would be rendered unsafe by the widespread use of commercial drones. The potential for accidental damage and injury in crowded residential areas is also considered too great a risk with the technology currently available.
Only time will tell if Jeff Bezos' vision of commercially viable UAS networks will win out over those concerned with the risks of their use, let alone their pontetially more sinister use for greater privacy invasion. Where business and law enforcement see a cheap and efficient way to carry out their respective tasks, many see a technology associated with an unlimited capability to curtail personal freedoms.
Robotics firm Parrot, an early developer of UAS for private use, offers evidence for how much the technology needs to develop before it becomes commercially viable; a hacker recently demonstrated the use of a commercially available Parrot drone to hijack and hunt other Parrot drones with relative ease.
Despite this, it would take a brave person to bet against Mr. Bezos, a man who has already proven his ability to revolutionise the commercial market in more ways than one.