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Originally published Tuesday, December 3, 2013 at 8:25 PM

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Bezos’ drone dream making a lot of noise

Amazon isn’t asking you whether you want the company’s drones to fill Seattle’s skies. Which makes the idea even creepier.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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It must have been an oversight, but Amazon’s Jeff Bezos did not ask me what I thought of his idea of having fleets of little airborne drones deliver packages to our doors in less than 30 minutes.

Not that I would expect him to ask me. But he didn’t come off as all that interested in what you think of squadrons of giant robot dragonflies fanning out across your city, either.

“It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun,” Bezos enthused to CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Not if Bruce Harrell’s phone calls are any judge.

“My office has been flooded with calls from people wanting to know: Can you please stop Amazon from flying those things in our neighborhoods?” Harrell, the head of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee, told me Tuesday.

Harrell recalled the public outcry last year when the Seattle Police Department acquired only two drones.

“People just do not like drones,” he said. “I don’t know how Mr. Bezos could put out that vision and not realize it might bother many, many folks.”

You can see this vision for yourself at a website Amazon set up to feature its “Prime Air” drone delivery service. There’s a minute-long video of an experimental “octocopter” — a roughly poodle-sized drone with eight rotors — flying through blue skies over a farm and a lake to plunk a package on the back patio of a suburban home.

“Q: One day we’ll see a fleet of Prime Air vehicles in the sky?” the website wonders.

“A: Yes,” it says definitively. “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.”

Let’s assume Bezos actually plans to push this (some speculate it was all a PR stunt, as the video alone has more than 8 million views). It will be fascinating to watch as yet another test case of who runs society: people or corporations?

Right now, the commercial use of drones is mostly barred by the Federal Aviation Administration, due to issues related to air safety. But Congress ordered the agency to write up new rules allowing some level of commercial drone use by 2015.

Who would you bet will have the most influence on those rules: the companies seeking to fly drones over your house and down your street, or you?

Bezos seemed to act like it was all but a done deal.

“From a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place,” the Amazon website predicts.

Consider what happened when the Legislature tried to set some modest limits on the use of drones by government agencies this past winter. The bipartisan bill was killed without a vote due to aggressive lobbying from ... you’ll never guess who ... Boeing! Which owns a drone company in Klickitat County along the Columbia River.

“We were concerned mostly with putting limits on any potential spying by law enforcement,” says state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, a co-sponsor of the bill. “It sailed out of committee. But then Boeing argued that the economic potential of drones was too great to put any limits on them at this time. So that was it for that bill.”

Ain’t democracy grand? We do have the very best one money can buy.

Both Harrell and Goodman said they aren’t anti-technology. There are plenty of good, limited uses for drones. But people want to be consulted first. They want a say. Mostly they want to feel like they still have some sway over the drones and the drone masters.

Google has the cautionary corporate slogan, “Don’t Be Evil.” A suggested new one for Amazon: “Don’t Be Creepy.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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