Heads Up, Pizza Coming

On May 11, 2014, Francesco’s Pizzeria in the Indian city of Mumbai made take-out history when the restaurant became the first in the country to deliver pizza via unmanned aircraft.

Francesco’s normally sends its pizzas out by motorcycle, which takes an average of 30 minutes. But this time a remote-controlled, GPS-enabled, four-rotor drone flying at 20 mph made the trip — to the rooftop of the 21-story apartment building — in about 10 minutes.

Drone-propelled pepperoni is, of course, one of the more trivial applications of the new technology. But while its use by the U.S. military in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq is well known, commercial adaptations are the coming thing. In fact, the skies may soon be thick with them.

Pizza isn’t the only thing that can and no doubt will be delivered to your door — or rooftop — in the near future. Just about anything that’s delivered now by truck or car or motorcycle will be a candidate for airborne delivery. Last year, Amazon said it was testing unmanned drones for deliveries. Same-day, even same-hour, service could do for parcel post what email did for snail mail — make it obsolete.

The potential applications are endless and have already begun: in police surveillance, fighting forest fires, crop dusting and emergency rescue. In Israel, drones are routinely used for counter-terror operations, and are currently helping soldiers on the ground in the search for the three kidnapped teenagers.

But there’s a big but to all this. Namely, what happened on Sunday in Chevron, when a small IDF drone experiencing a “technical malfunction” crashed into the roof of a private house. No one was hurt, and the craft was handed over to security forces. But this kind of thing happens all the time.

A new investigation conducted by The Washington Post reveals that although most U.S. military drone accidents have occurred abroad, at least 49 large drones have crashed during test or training flights near domestic bases since 2001.

The latest such incident occurred on April 3 in Jonestown, PA, when a 375-pound Shadow reconnaissance drone hurtling earthward just missed a school building as the recess bell rang, subsequently colliding with a passing car. Then, too, no one was hurt. But it gives you an idea of the kind of safety problem drones will pose as they proliferate in the nation’s airspace.

Right now, the FAA prohibits military drones from entering commercial airspace, but that will soon change. Anew federal law will open the national airspace to drones of all kinds; the Pentagon is planning to operate thousands of them from at least 110 bases in 39 states by 2017.

Historically, safety provisions have typically lagged behind technological advances. It took decades for society to catch up with the industrial revolution and to institute workers’ safety measures and child labor laws; the very concept of pollution as an undesirable phenomenon reached public consciousness long after toxic chemicals rendered such major waterways as Lake Erie and the Connecticut River deathtraps for wildlife; the simple device of seat belts came only after countless head-on crash fatalities.

Much the same can be expected of the drone revolution — and it does promise, or threaten, to yet again significantly change our lives, the way we do business, catch criminals, and order pizza. Many more such crashes may occur, along with accompanying casualties, if there isn’t plenty of public vigilance early on.

The U.S. military’s attitude so far is just what you might have expected of a closed, secretive organization. The military provides the FAA with data on its drone accidents. But the agency will not routinely release the information, since the Pentagon provides it on the condition that it not be made public.

Many of the facts and figures uncovered in the Post investigation were obtained through Freedom of Information Act filings which forced the Pentagon to make disclosures.

What to do? Well, for once we might profitably look to Europe for a clue.

In the Old World, they’re moving forward with drone technology too — but more slowly and cautiously. European officials are slated to begin formally soliciting public comments this fall, which means that the licensing of drone flights is probably several years away.

Spain is in the forefront, having declared itself a no-drone zone with a blanket ban on unmanned commercial aircraft. The safest, if not the most progressive, policy.

In the U.S., military and industrial pressure is creating a different atmosphere. FAA officials are reportedly preparing regulations to be unveiled late this year covering drones that are less than 50 pounds. But even before that, the FAA is moving to grant interim, case-by-case approvals for selected industries.

In a recent speech on the issue of regulating unmanned air vehicles, FAA chief Michael Huerta said that we “must embrace this new technology…” But, having established his credential as a forward-looking aviation official, he immediately demonstrated that he still had his feet on the ground, as he added that “we need more data” and must be sure to “integrate [drones] in a measured way.”

Even if it means still waiting half an hour for a pizza.