In Los Angeles, the sky has always just been what we stare into instead of reading vanity plates when we’re sitting in traffic. But the empty space above our heads may someday soon fill up with drones — delivering our goods, helping police, and always watching us.
Let’s imagine that future LA together. And let’s start with the question that weighs heaviest on our consumer brains:
Will delivery drones actually become a thing?
The big tech companies are certainly planning on it, says Gregory McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine University and an expert on drones.
“I attended a conference at NASA's Ames field, where a representative from Google stated that when they're operating at scale, they expect at least 100,000 daily flights over a city like Los Angeles,” he says.
“I actually think that number’s low now, right? If you think of the number of people, post-COVID, who are getting deliveries on a daily basis, many of those deliveries could be accomplished with a drone, small packages, right under five pounds. I expect that number will be much more than 100,000 flights a day.”
Some of your favorite giant corporations are looking at this: Amazon, Walmart, Google, UPS, FedEx, and Uber Eats. Kroger announced it will start drone delivery at a Ralph’s in California this summer. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), meanwhile, is granting approvals right and left for growing these operations.
But what about the noise?
Tens of thousands of buzzing, whining drones overhead? Will we all go nuts?
McNeal says, “The technology will improve, such that it will get quieter. But it might not be quiet enough in some very quiet neighborhoods, and it might be perfectly fine in urban areas where there's ambient noise.”
So, like delivery trucks, McNeal says some neighborhoods may allow drones, while others don’t.
And speaking of trucks ...
What happens to the drivers?
Lou Villalvazo is principal officer and secretary treasurer for LA’s Teamsters local union 630, which represents drivers. He says the potential loss of those jobs will resonate through communities.
“In the end, the reality is … eliminating ... American jobs. Not to mention, in our case, good union jobs, middle-class jobs,” he says. “It impacts your police officers, your fire department, your teachers. … I think it only serves a purpose to benefit that 1% and corporations that basically are looking for the bottom line.”
McNeal points out that the drone industry would create other jobs — building the drones, maintaining them, working in warehouses to stage deliveries. And keeping the machines busy in the skies, which also means a lot of cameras flying around. So, next question:
How does this affect privacy?
Back in 2015, then-California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a former California State Senator representing Ventura and Santa Barbara, addressed the question of where drones can fly (and what they can photograph). The result was AB-856, a paparazzi-focused bill to protect against someone using a drone to make money off filming you.
But what if, instead of a few paparazzi, it’s thousands of Google and Amazon drones, and they’re filming everything?
McNeal envisions navigation apps offering a whole new level of detail.
“Imagine that at any point in time, you could dial up on Google Maps and see … my neighbors are having a barbecue or … my daughter's car is at her boyfriend's house right now,” he says.
Delivering our toilet paper would be one part of the business model. Jackson thinks the drone industry’s plan is to hurry up and convince us that faster toilet paper is better toilet paper, and never mind the data thing.
“We see this now … with this whole issue of consumer privacy in the use of the internet and technologies today, where companies are insisting that our personal information really belongs to them,” she says. “It's just data that they're entitled to sell. So their goal, frankly, is to avoid any discussion or regulation on this until it's too late.”
How will law enforcement use drones?
“LAPD has the largest fleet of helicopters. And now they're expanding it with drones as well,” says Hamid Khan, the founder of StopLAPDSpying, which is a coalition of groups fighting police surveillance and militarization. He’s been campaigning against law enforcement drones in LA County since 2014. “So we see these local law enforcement agencies, you know, just engaging and expanding and creating their own Air Forces.”
Khan says we’re not just talking about surveillance. In North Dakota, the legislature approved police using tasers and tear gas in drones, and Connecticut proposed a bill to allow police drones to carry lethal weapons.
In LA, police say drones are only used minimally, for SWAT operations. But it’s one thing for the police to have a few dozen drones. It’s another for thousands of delivery drones to be constantly watching as they bring your cereal, and for that footage to be available to law enforcement.
Khan points to Amazon’s Ring doorbell division partnering with law enforcement. In fact, according to emails obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, during the Black Lives Matter protests in LA last year, LAPD reached out to Ring owners, asking for footage of protestors.
It’s important to understand that these developments are happening slowly, incrementally, so these changes are easy to ignore. Which ones become our future depends on who’s writing the rules.
So, with that in mind, last question:
Who is writing the rules?
Right now, airspace is controlled by the FAA, and big companies don’t want to hand it over to local governments. Why? Because haggling with hundreds or thousands of different legal frameworks nationwide would be a huge headache for companies like Amazon or Walmart, says McNeal.
“If you're a well-moneyed player like Amazon, you're waiting for the moment when you are prepared to scale. And then at once, you're going to unleash tens of thousands of drones across the United States all at once, and squash all competition,” he says.
If there’s local control of the airspace, it makes it harder for big players to dominate what the consulting company Deloitte estimates will be an industry worth $115 billion per year by 2035.
“You also, if you're Amazon, don't want to have to go to the city of Los Angeles and deal with their community concern about the fact that your distribution facility that has takeoff and landing 25 times a day happens to be located in a low-income community, instead of in the sort of richest toniest area of Los Angeles.”
Jackson says corporations want to design the skies of the future. And they’re hoping we ignore the irritation of thinking about it.
“Frankly, if the current situation is any indication of the future, technology is going to control,” she says. “Industry is driving the train. And I think that's unfortunate. I think a lot of the problem is that we really don't even know what that technology looks like. The industry does, the industry is planning for it. But we as public policymakers, we as the public, are not as aware. And because money is the driver, we are not taking the lead. … My hope is that it’s a conversation where the public leads.
That’s right. Sit back and let it all come to you in time. For now, enjoy another cookie, and don’t worry about who’s watching.