Drones are our friends.
Well, not all of us. If you’re a Taliban chieftan sitting in your hut contemplating new ways to prevent girls from learning to read, the buzzing of an approaching drone might not evoke pangs of friendship.
But for most of the rest of us, drones are likely to perform a variety of useful functions – such as quicker delivery of that spare part we need to fix the dishwasher or the boxed set of CDs for the latest season of “Downton Abbey” – and to help us in other ways we have yet to imagine.
The collective vision of the future we had in the ’50s and ’60s turned out to be both whimsical and irrational in many respects. Sad to say, we don’t have personal helicopters or jet packs to ferry us around, monorails running through our major metropolises, underwater cities or colonies in space.
What we do have are technological marvels that were totally inconceivable 50 years ago. We may not have personal choppers but computers and GPS should make driverless cars a practical reality in the near future.
And, of course, we already have drones.
Drones are mostly associated now with death from the sky. Their success in the precision bombing of buildings or even moving vehicles containing enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan has made them an invaluable tool of war.
Their use for that purpose admittedly is controversial. Innocent people have died in drone attacks.
But military officials argue persuasively that the attacks are accomplished without risk to U.S. pilots or troops on the ground and that civilian deaths would be higher if the bombings were done by conventional planes.
In the future, though, we’re likely to be able to distinguish the military uses for drones from the civilian uses in the same way we distinguish passenger planes from stealth bombers. Our image of drones won’t be confined to the lethal weapons roaming the skies above Afghanistan, it also will include the cute little devices that deliver our packages.
Regarding package delivery, the future is not far off. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, told “60 Minutes” on Sunday that the company is working on a project that would use unmanned octocopters to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.
Bezos said the drones (prototypes already have been developed) can carry packages that weigh up to five pounds, which covers nearly 90 percent of the items Amazon delivers. They have a range of about 10 miles, which could reach a significant number of customers in a densely populated urban area.
Bezos can’t say exactly when the drone delivery service will be launched but speculates if will come within four or five years. If it works, other companies are sure to follow Amazon’s lead.
And once drones become commonplace as delivery agents in the sky, people will dream up other applications for drones. When you begin to envision them as surrogate robots, the possibilities are wide open.
Drones could be used to dust crops or selectively search and destroy pests. They could search for people lost in the wilderness, dump fire retardants on forest fires, carry food to hurricane victims in remote areas, survey toxic sites such as a damaged nuclear reactor, deliver medicine to faraway villages, pluck children from burning buildings, give police a view of hostage situations, ferry materials back and forth at industrial sites and many other uses yet to be dreamed up.
I understand the resistance to introducing more high-tech devices into our already technologically overcrowded lives, especially for purposes as unessential as half-hour delivery service. Do we really need anything other than pizza that fast?
And, after the novelty has worn off, the buzz of drones could become the bane of our existence. They could be the leaf blowers of the future.
It is more likely, however, that drones will be integrated into our lives in a way that makes us wonder how we ever coped without them in the pre-drone era. They’ll be as ubiquitous as smart phones.
We shouldn’t have long to wait. The next installment of the future is just around the corner.
James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at email@example.com.