Online retailers and carriers dream of a world where drones deliver all kinds of goods. What does this mean for both the airspace and the environment? How secure can a drone delivery service be? And how can we be sure that these drones will not be used for illegal activities? In this project, the Austrian perspective has been explored for the first time.
While the topic of "drones" has been predominantly used by the military until quite recently, today it has arrived in the civil domain and in everyday life. Hundreds of thousands of toy drones or quadrocopters are around worldwide and we all got used to breath-taking shots from perspectives that seemed unimaginable. Increasingly we encounter surveillance drones, many of us have observed tourists filming themselves with a "flying selfie stick". In many other areas pilot tests are carried out to test the usefulness of drones, for instance in agriculture, in the humanitarian and medial sector, for inspection of facilities, in the field of mapping and surveying, and last but not least in research, to mention just a few examples. Commercial interests are abound: large online retailers, a few post enterprises and numerous start-ups are working hard to make us imagine a world in which everyday commodities will be delivered by drones through the air.
But when it comes to drone-based deliveries, conditions are as yet less than perfect. Many technical and regulatory obstacles have to be overcome. Given the considerable depth of engagement - considering that the airspace around us, which was so far used by birds and occasional helicopters only, would change profoundly - a number of typical technology assessment (TA) questions are on the table: Are accidents prone to happen? What are the environmental risks? In what ways could criminals or terrorists misuse the technology? Are we facing a societal conflict given the divergent interests involved? Does the current regulatory framework suffice, or do we need new rules?
This overview study managed to find some preliminary answers to the above questions, which contain potential for future conflicts:
So far, the technology used to autonomously fly drones is not fully mature yet. However, there is a large potential for improper use. Noise, in particular in urban settings, esthetical concerns and the protection of privacy hold a potential for societal conflict. Air traffic regulation would need to be adapted. From an environmental perspective, wild animals, in particular birds, would be disturbed by the drones. From a TA perspective - given the many open questions and the potential of conflict - we conclude that an encompassing TA study, preferably with participatory elements, focusing on Austria should be carried out urgently. We should take a good look and examine what it would cost us to live in a world where drones may be used for daily deliveries of all kinds of goods. The alternative use under special circumstances, e.g. for medicines.