An Unsettling Future


runyan_josh_otBefore battlefield technology evolved to the point that warfare could be conducted remotely, before Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos dreamed up the concept of deliveryman-less delivery of goods, drones were much different animals.

Animals quite literally, in fact, with the term drones referring to male bees who did not make honey and did not possess a stinger. The other definitions for the term in the pre-Predator and pre-Amazon days signified just as much. Used in the pejorative, it could either describe a person who lived off the labor of others or who performed menial and unimaginative work.

Today, of course, drones, specifically those designed for commercial use — as opposed to those that continue to destroy during times of war — signify a more imaginative evolution of society, with people like Bezos betting that the day will come when you order your groceries online and within hours, an aerial robot drops them at your door. This week’s cover story examines the still-evolving regulatory and ethical framework behind this future. While the Federal Aviation Administration, which governs America’s airspace — the very environment in which drones operate — has yet to finalize regulations and procedures to make drone flying a safe enterprise, people such as Yosef Shidler have already made it a profitable one.

Melissa Apter reports that Shidler, owner of CJ Studios in Brooklyn, N.Y., used a drone to photograph this year’s picture of thousands of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in front of the movement’s headquarters, a first in the 31-year history of their annual gathering. Hollywood movie studios, as well, have adopted the technology, seeing in the unmanned aerial photography platforms a cheaper alternative to either posting a cameraman on a crane or aboard a plane.

But what happens — or more to the point, who is responsible — when something goes wrong? Just last week, a Hollywood drone left the confines of its shoot and, without direction or control, crash landed in a neighboring ranch. A couple of weeks before, a drone carrying mistletoe over the heads of diners at a TGIFridays fell on an unlucky customer and cut up her face.

The fact is, without government oversight, the air 100 feet above your head could well become clogged with whirring quad-copters and winged robotic craft. Who operates them, how they’re operated and under what training regimen are all questions that have yet to be unanswered. One Jewish businessman in Florida, Howard Melamed, has a plan for an industry-wide standard, but nothing on the order of the legal framework and courses of study governing the certification of aviators yet exists.

But there’s another question to ask. If the expansion of drone technology is just another step toward a world in which commerce and other societal activities are less reliant on human beings being a part of the system — driverless cars are already legal in California — how real is the danger that we may yet become the embodiment of what drones originally signified? Some printers already automatically order toner for you when they run low — the concept could be expanded to include any number of household goods — but isn’t there value in a person recognizing for themselves when there’s a need?

Judaism has always believed in the power of human potential to perfect an imperfect world, but we are fast developing ways to remove ourselves from the equation. The forward march of progress has always been a source of inspiration, but the future ahead, for drones at least, is an unsettled and sobering one.

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