Domestic Drones Are Coming Your Way

When Americans think about drones today, they tend to think of two things: state-sanctioned killing and police surveillance. Yet drones are capable of so much more.

Six hours into his epic filibuster last week, Sen. Rand Paul had to settle for Mike & Ike’s from the Senate candy drawer to quell his hunger. But is there any question he would have much rather had some delicious carnitas delivered by quadrocopter?

TacoCopter is the very-early-stage start-up—or hoax, depending on how you look at things—that promises to deliver tacos via autonomous drones to the coordinates of customers who place orders using a smartphone app. It sounds crazy, but it is actually perfectly plausible. Small drones are made from many of the same components as smartphones, and the economies of scale of that industry have driven the cost of gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS chips, and CPUs to the ground. As a result, the widespread use of drones in commerce is imminent—unless politicians overreact to the bad press.

While Paul’s stand brought much needed attention to the government’s use of drones in targeted killings, it also created the danger that the public will only see drones in this negative light. Unmanned aerial vehicles and other autonomous systems, however, are neutral technologies that can be put to good uses as well as bad ones. Yet panic about some particular applications, like assassination and surveillance, could hamper their adoption for wholly beneficial purposes.