Some music fans at the Oppikoppi summer festival in South Africa
last month quenched their thirst with cold beer dropped by
parachute from a drone called, appropriately, Manna, as in the
biblical "manna from heaven."
It was an experiment, and it worked. No parachute piracy or
misdirection to teetotalers was reported. Nobody got an accidental
beer soaking, even though it was delivered in plastic cups.
They ordered up their cold ones via smartphone, and it got
delivered via unmanned drone, from 50 feet up.
This is just one good reason why the revelation from
) founder Jeff Bezos, in a recent CBS News
interview, that his company plans to introduce 30-minute delivery
by unmanned drone, is not some cockamamy scheme, as was widely
Nor does Bezos deserve the many online video parodies his comments
spawned, although the one titled
My Sneaky Sausage
from ad agency Red Pepper is pretty good.
It may be five years before Amazon gets its drones in the air, at
least in the US. But it will happen. The development of the drone
industry, now in its infancy, could have an enormous impact on both
personal technology and business operations.
In fact, use of drones by civilians is already fairly common,
although its applications are limited within the US until federal
privacy and safety regulations are developed.
Farmers are using drones to monitor their crops from the air. Oil
and gas firms use them to survey potential drilling sites.
Photographers and movie-makers use them for aerial shots. Hobbyist
are popping up.
And even if Amazon can't deliver via drones yet, it can sell them
A little four-pounder
called the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Quadricopter can be yours for
$267.99, marked down from $299.99. The controller for the device,
made by Parrot Inc., is an app for Android or
) iOS devices.
A more workaday but still pint-sized drone might cost about $3,000
And that price tag is the key to the drone's increasing popularity.
The US military paid millions for the Predator drones that were
designed to drop missiles on terrorists in remote locations.
The Predator has been in the air since 1995. Much of the technology
that was new and expensive then is inside our smartphones now.
So, the price is plummeting, and a new industry is emerging.
But not quite yet in the US. The Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) is working to write regulations on privacy and safety related
to civilian use of drones or, as the agency terms them, unmanned
Meanwhile, some big companies besides Amazon are exploring their
uses, though few details are being volunteered.
United Parcel Service
) is said to be testing drone delivery, although it would not
confirm or deny the
report by TheVerge.com
Frederick W. Smith, founder of UPS rival
), has expressed interest in using delivery drones-and impatience
at the wait for regulations that would get the industry moving.
The shopping division at
) is said to be testing drone delivery, too. Google even
donated $5 million
to the World Wildlife Fund to pay for use of drones to collect data
on illegal poaching of endangered species in Africa.
Until new regulations are in place, it is illegal to sell or buy
services using drones in the US, and has been since 2007. Private
use on personal or business property is permitted.
Just last month, the FAA issued
a "road map" for expansion
of drone use. It is expected to allow six commercial test areas to
be designated in 2014. These may be modest, using only small drones
in less-populated areas.
Privacy, not safety, seems to be the primary concern, at least in
Congress. Nobody seems to be imagining the potential collision of a
large order of Chinese food and, say, a 30-pound box of cat litter
in a densely-populated neighborhood.
If there are plenty of American companies eager to use drones,
there are others just as eager to build them.
High on the list are what you might call the retoolers, the big
military contractors who developed and built drone technology for
the US Army.
The US military is likely to be using drones long after the winding
down of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with our most
visible presence there-our "boots on the ground"-leaving the scene,
the political pressure to cut defense spending is likely to grow.
The contractors are looking to adapt to peacetime applications.
Those names include
(NOC), the manufacturer of the Global Hawk drone, and
(RTN), which built a Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) drone.
(TXT), which builds drones through its Textron Systems unit,
although it's better known for its Cessna planes and Bell
Helicopters. General Atomics, an old name in nuclear technologies,
produced the Predator drones through its Aircraft Systems
These venerable names will have competition from entrepreneurs like
Chris Anderson, former editor of
magazine and founder of 3D Robotics, a maker of "personal drones."
The Mayfield Fund
announced this week
that it will invest $6 million in 3D Robotics, bringing its total
funding to $35 million.
Anderson has said he expects to be able to sell a ready-to-fly
personal drone model called IRIS for about $750. Higher-end models
will be geared for commercial uses.
For now, the company has its
up. Drone-building kits are available for under $400.
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