Letting the drone out of Pandora’s box

THERE you are, walking your dog in the park, when suddenly something zooms past your head, your dog goes bananas thinking it’s a new toy, and the flying object crashes into a pushchair with a sleeping baby next to a sunbathing young woman. General mayhem ensues. Then someone rushes over, grabs a parcel from the clutches of the aerobatic robot, and sends it back into the air to return whence it came.

Well, it’s a rather cartoonish sequence of events and it hopefully won’t end up with demented dogs and terrified toddlers, but the idea of having your post delivered by drone to an open space near you is not as far-fetched as all that. Sci-fi is often more prophetic than we care to imagine. And this particular science fiction concept is now being openly talked about – this week on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. Today Today, tomorrow the world.

Time was when you posted a letter, any time up to 6pm, and you were sure it would arrive anywhere in mainland Britain, the next day. Shetland or the Orkneys would take a little longer. Now you can’t rely on it arriving, even with its first class stamp, in less than three days, although next day is still what you are hoping for. The last collection on Saturday is usually before 1pm with none on Sunday. And deliveries are at best unreliable – our post can come at any time from 9ish in the morning to mid-afternoon (not good of you are running a business or an event and want to bank cheques).

Meanwhile, if you make purchases online, your order may arrive within 24 hours, via some privately run delivery service. Some major retailers – including Next and Debenhams – are currently promising next day deliveries for orders received up to 10pm.

I am not a Luddite – we have computers, electronic gadgets, iPads and iPods and we work on computers, as we have done for some 30 years. In so many ways, technology has made our lives easier and saved us time (what do we do with all that extra time?) but not every development is an advance – although the financial benefits can, of course, be vast for corporations and organisations. Many have resulted in huge job losses, and more people working on their own, with the associated risks of isolation and depression. Social costs are rarely pitted against corporate profits.

And now, for those prepared to pay for the service, we can look forward to the mail being delivered by drones.

The word “drone” has many meanings – as a verb it means to make a dull, continuous hum, or to talk boringly and continuously (“drone on”), but as a noun it is the male of the honeybee and other bees, stingless and making no honey, a person who is a parasite or loafer, living off the efforts of others, or an unmanned aircraft or ship that can navigate autonomously, without human control or beyond line of sight.

So what are we to make of drones delivering your internet order? It is still some way off, but remote controlled aircraft are already used extensively, albeit controversially, for military actions, police surveillance, filming and photographing property, and by paparazzi to snoop on celebrities.

There are many legal hurdles to be overcome – would the drones have a designated “landing zone” in a park or open space in the area, could you have your own drop-zone in a large garden, how would the neighbours react to having a drone fly in when they are having a barbecue or relaxing by the swimming pool, what are the implications for unmanned flying objects in densely populated urban areas, and what are the risks of livestock in the countryside being frightened and possibly injuring themselves in a stampede if a drone flies low over their pasture?

Google Glass is already raising concerns, but no amount of individual protest is going to stop it. Consumer drones are an inevitable next step.

We may hate the idea, but we are going to have to find a way to live with it, because if it’s possible, some big corporation or organisation will do it – in this case, it is Amazon, but where Amazon leads the others will follow. So we can’t ignore it, shut our eyes and ears and hope it goes away. We need the watchdogs – whether they are the official consumer bodies and organisations that monitor infringements of freedom and privacy or independent groups such as 38 Degrees or Change.org – to be constantly alert to the legal and social implications and we need to support them in their campaigns to protect our freedoms and our privacy.

You can’t put the genie back in the lamp. You can’t close Pandora’s box.

Fanny Charles