Friday 3 April 2015

SMARTS Update/Delivery By Drone: Is It Safe?

When I was just an aspiring proto-journalist, my husband Stephen was already a TV producer/reporter working for CTV’s main public affairs show. In those days, before the passage of the federal Access to Information Act messed information access up, he could get interviews with cabinet ministers with ease. While every document that could conceivably embarrass (even the size of the labor force!) was stamped secret, top secret, or even cosmic (if it related to NATO), there were lots of officials happy to slip the right journalist a brown paper bag full of incriminating stuff, and government officials usually returned phone calls.
Journalists also had free run of Parliament Hill. If the Prime Minister’s office said no to an interview, Stephen and his camera crew would set up right outside the Prime Minister’s office, with a secondary crew lying in wait down the hall in case the PM bolted out his back door. There were no obsequious formalities, no Mr. Prime Minister this, or Mr. Minister that. One day, Stephen was working on a story the PM didn’t want to talk about, so he set up as usual outside the PM’s door. Eventually, Prime Minister Trudeau walked up the hall with his principal secretary in tow. When he spotted Stephen, he bellowed from about sixty feet away: “I’m not talking to you, Dewar, you son of a bitch, you’ve always got some tricky fucking question…”
When I began going up to Ottawa on stories, things had changed, but not much. I did a piece about women’s issues for a national magazine. Naturally, I set up an interview with Marc Lalonde, then the Minister for Women as well as the Minister for Energy Mines and Resources.  We had a very interesting conversation that stretched on long enough that I finally had to stand up and say, thank you, but I have to go now.  The Minister’s assistant said, “how about lunch with the Minister?”  Whoa, I thought: is he coming on to me? “I’m sorry, I have another appointment in twenty minutes, but thanks so much,” I said. I was still congratulating myself on my charms as I walked out of the minister’s front door. The hall was jammed with reporters yelling “where’s Lalonde?”  

What the hell? I asked one of them.

Oh, arsenic’s been found in Great Slave Lake, right near Yellowknife, said one. Big crisis.  

That’s when I figured out that the minister had tried to use me as a human shield.

But Ottawa’s openness, then, was as nothing compared to the US. The first time I reported from there, I was amazed that officials, police, business executives, and most of all, Senators and Congressmen/women, were happy to see me, though I was a foreign reporter. I remember coming back from my first trip to Washington babbling that I’d just gone to heaven.
In other words, once upon a time, there was something approaching freedom of the press among the democracies of the West. It wasn’t perfect. Governments and corporations hid everything they could, but when you got the goods, those responsible answered questions and even resigned. That is so over.
Now, I am amazed when any office holder actually makes himself/herself available for interviews (which is different from making himself/herself available by reading a carefully crafted speech in front of a handpicked crowd and then hightailing it out the back door). Most of the time, reporters are forced to end stories by saying: we contacted the Minister’s office for comment, but no one was made available. Or, worse: we got this email response from the minister’s office, followed by a slow reading of the turgid, non- responsive claptrap on air, or, by dropping it into the article like drang in the sturm.
So I am not surprised that I heard first about the giant online sales company, Amazon, testing its autonomous drones in Canada in The Guardian, a British newspaper with a US outlet. There had been no Canadian hearings, no stories about this on Canadian front pages. The Guardian is the paper principally responsible for bringing Edward Snowden and his stolen hoard of Five Eyes documents to the public eye. (The Guardian remained the lead paper publishing on these documents until British government security officials arrived at its headquarters and smashed the hard drives loaded up with them. As if that mattered. The documents had long since been copied and squirreled away in various locations, especially in the US).
The Guardian story featured the claim that Amazon’s drone tests were being conducted at a “secret” location in Canada, right beside the US border (but also in Israel and in the UK). Why? The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had been slow to issue test permits to Amazon. Canada, on the other hand, had been extremely drone friendly. Canada’s Department of Transport had issued Amazon a test permit.

Amazon wants to deliver your orders to you within thirty minutes-- as opposed to days-—by autonomous drone, as opposed to human driven trucks. It wants to fly its drone fleet at heights above 200 feet, avoiding the roofs of most buildings, and below 500 feet, where civil aviation begins. It calls its system Prime Air though it has yet to prove that drones are safe to fly out of the sight of their controllers in urban locations. Such proof will be required to get the FAA’s permission to operate in the US. Amazon’s drones will have to be able to show that they can sense obstacles and avoid them, react to shifts in the wind, and deal with rain and ice and sleet and snow, while safely dropping up to five pound loads on your front porch. (Buy a copy or two of my new book Smarts: it will be available in paperback so no damage will done if it falls on you from a height.)

Here is the current promotional video for Prime Air.
It is almost identical to the promo video Amazon first uploaded to youtube in December, 2013.

At that point, Amazon’s controlling shareholder, Jeff Bezos, said drone delivery would arrive by 2015.

At that time too, an online news show raised serious doubts about Bezos’ timeline and safety claims. Apparently, US Homeland Security had already successfully hacked a drone while in flight, and redirected it. There were other serious issues too about whether Amazon’s drones will be smart enough to deal with the complexities of urban airspaces.
But apparently the Stephen Harper Government, sometimes known as the government of Canada, is not worried. (Neither are the governments of the United Kingdom and Israel.) This is no surprise either: the government of Canada’s Department of Transport has shown itself to be extremely willing to relax regulations on the transport of dangerous goods by rail. When the major railroads lobbied for a rule change so that freight trains could be manned by one person instead of two, the government obliged. Until this was pointed to as one of the factors in the Lac-Megantic disaster, who knew?

The Canadian government fell all over itself to issue permits to various corporations seeking to test drones. By 2014, it had issued 1,672 Special Flight Operations Certificates, according to Mike Hager writing in the Globe and Mail.  By contrast, the FAA in the US has issued only 24 “exemptions” permitting companies to test drones. Up until last week, Amazon had not been included. Commercial flights of drones weighing more than 25 kilograms flying out of the line of sight of the operator or flying in the dark are not permitted at all.

The Guardian said the Amazon Canadian test site is in a rural area beside the US border. But the Globe and Mail named it the same day as Chilliwack, a small city that backs on that border.According to the Canadian Press, Canada has some parameters in place for the use of drones, such as keeping them at least eight kilometres away from airports and not hovering above 90 metres. These rules are likely to conflict with what Amazon wants. But don’t expect them to last.

“Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said Monday that Canada is a world leader in drone technology, specifically when it comes to making sure that the right rules are in place.
‘We have real rules and a real application process to go through. We encourage people to do that,’ Raitt said in Ottawa.
‘In terms of Amazon and companies like that, Canada Post, whoever wants to utilize this technology in their day-to-day businesses, I'd encourage them to talk to Transport Canada,’ she said. ‘We have a wealth of experience, and we certainly want to keep up with the times, and we don't want to be behind the technology curve.’”

Note the CP did not say where and to whom Minister Raitt said these things.

And why did all these publications get on this story at the same time? The answer seems to be Amazon’s PR department working hard to get its version of this story in front of you. According to USA Today, Amazon had finally been granted an exemption by the FAA during the last week in March to test a particular drone, but it took so long for the FAA to make up its mind that Amazon had already discarded that design as inadequate. Paul Misener, vice president of Amazon’s global public policy (there’s an oxymoron) told a Senate subcommittee on aviation that same week that the FAA’s proposals for governing small drones are too restrictive and don’t

…“ ‘go far enough.’ Amazon's Prime Air would have sophisticated technology to avoid other aircraft, he said. But the aircraft will have to fly highly automated routes 10 miles or more beyond the sight of remote pilots, he said.​​
‘This low level of government attention and slow pace are inadequate, especially compared to the regulatory efforts in other countries,’ Misener said.”

Why would foreign governments do so quickly what the US will not do at all, though Amazon is a huge, American-based company, rapidly changing the ways and means of US commerce? One thing that the named foreign governments have in common is that they are currently led by conservative Prime Ministers, whereas the US is led by a Democrat. Another thing these governments have in common is that they are small economic powers jockeying for advantage in a global trade system that makes WWE wrestling look majestically rule-based. Globalism is a vicious race of all-against-all in which smart corporations play one country’s rules off against all the others’ in order to gain maximum advantage. This pretty much guarantees that the flying robots coming soon to a porch near you will have much less safety scrutiny than anyone would like.

The Canadian Minister, Lisa Raitt, suggested this obliquely when she insisted that Canada is a world leader in drone technology and intends to remain so. She must have made this claim by press release because every paper running the story used the same quote, without the magic phrase, said in an interview.

Did any reporter get to ask her directly: is it safe?

I doubt it.

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