Friday, August 09, 2013

Painting a happy face on flying death robots

I keep seeing articles like these about how you can use drones for stuff other than killing people. Which is great! Except, that doesn't take away from any of my concerns about those other drones that actually are killing people. Also, a lot of these non-killing uses don't hold up very well if I think about them for too long.

Take the article linked above:
Revellers at a South African outdoor rock festival no longer need to queue to slake their thirst -- a flying robot will drop them beer by parachute.
After clients place an order using a smartphone app, a drone zooms 15 metres (50 feet) above the heads of the festival-goers to make the delivery.
The accuracy of GPS in a smartphone varies a bit by model. According to this study, the GPS in iOS devices averaged an accuracy of about four feet (with individual GPS readings off by much more). Even if we assume the average, delivering beer within four feet of the person who ordered it in a crowded outdoor concert sucks. Maybe some people would be happy to buy a beer for strangers who happen to be sitting around them. But if the person making the order is actually thirsty, it will take a lot of orders to assure that a beer ends up in the orderer's hands.

No doubt, part of the appeal of schemes like these is the coolness factor of having a beer order filled by a flying robot. And as long as it remains a novelty, the people around the one who placed the order are likely to be cooperative and will help the beer find the right person. But once the public gets used to it and begins to take the technology for granted, having a beer you didn't order parachute onto your head which creates a social obligation to start asking around to find out who ordered the beer when you just want to listen to the concert is going to be viewed as an annoyance.

There is another appeal of a scheme like this, specifically the appeal to drone manufacturers. The idea is that maybe the public will start thinking of drones as friendly roving alcohol delivery devices rather than killing machines. It's not bad as a P.R. stunt, but it could backfire. The people under the parachuting beers are going to experience drone accuracy problems first hand. (Or at least it will seem like they are experiencing a drone accuracy problem when really it will probably be a smartphone GPS accuracy problem). Which could raise more questions about how many innocent people get killed by those weaponized drones.

(via Memorandum)