Business Logistics

Rant: Attack of the Drones

Trying to predict the future behaviour of tech giants such as Google, Facebook and is like trying to predict next month's weather using the leaves from my morning cup of tea, not least because all three companies are staffed by people who are almost certainly significantly brighter than I am. Still, that's never stopped me in the past, so let's give it a go.

We'll start with drones. Google recently trumped Facebook to the purchase of Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico, US-based company that makes drones that are designed to stay airborne for years. Undeterred, Facebook bought a UK drone start-up, Ascenta, which has similar aims. And we've all read about Amazon's desire for drones, thanks to Jeff Bezos' apparent intentions [video] to use them for product delivery. OK, we all thought he was joking. It seems not.

Taken alongside Google's and Facebook's acquisition of robotics, VR and artificial intelligence companies recently, the obvious conclusion is that these companies are vying to be the first to create a self-sufficient Terminator-esque robot civilisation so that they can enslave and rule mankind. More than they already do, I mean.

It's true that Amazon seems to be going down a different route to the other two, and doesn't yet pose a 'killer robot' style threat, but I'm sure its delivery drones could easily be weaponised when the time comes. Out goes the hardback collector's edition of 50 Shades of Grey, in goes a small tactical nuclear warhead, beautifully sealed in cardboard packaging. If all three companies should join forces at some point in the future, they'd be unstoppable. Even by Arnie.

While I for one would welcome our new robotic overlords, I could be wrong (see disclaimer in first paragraph). It's possible that the future is less dystopian, and that none of these three big companies will actually morph into Skynet. Unlikely, I know, but possible.

Amazon's stated aim is already well known. It's about delivery: getting product to people fast so that they buy more from you. If the postal services of the world can't do that as quickly or efficiently (i.e. cheaply) as you'd like, why not build your own delivery system out of a network of semi-autonomous flying craft? Well, I can think of quite a few good reasons why not to do that, but see paragraph one again.

Both Google and Facebook claim they want to bring internet access to those parts of the world where none currently exists, or where it's patchy or of poor quality (come hither to rural New Zealand, I beg thee). Yes, I know they would say that, but it's certainly plausible. Satellite internet is prone to lag and weather-dependent. Google's Project Loon is still in the experimental stages and may never progress much further, especially if drones turn out to be more appealing in terms of direction control. Wiring up vast swathes of desert, wilderness, tundra and swamp with fibre-optic cable would be unrealistically expensive. So how else do you connect the unconnected?

Actually, in many parts of the world, mobile phone networks are doing a pretty good job of that. But still there's room for drone-based internet provision, if only because some of these drones can stay in the air for years without refuelling, thanks to light weight, clever design and the use of solar power to keep them aloft. While mobile phone masts can cover a wide area, that's nothing compared to the line of sight of a hovering or circling internet drone. And, being at a lower altitude than satellites, lag and weather interference should be reduced.

But this represents a rather significant transition for Facebook and Google. Currently neither company is an ISP, at least not on a large scale. They don't provide internet connectivity to their customers: people come to them over other companies' networks. And the collection of other companies' networks, the internet as we know it, is supposed to be free, independent, neutral, and protected from interference. I use "supposed to be" because tiered access speeds and content-specific routing algorithms are probably already removing net neutrality.

Now, consider an internet service provided entirely by Facebook, end-to-end. Or one provided by Google. Would they look the same? Would the same weightings be applied to competing companies' content, or would some filtering be applied to ensure that the supplier of the internet connection was also favoured in terms of the ads and content delivered over that connection?

Not quite Skynet, then, but not an altruistic offering to the unconnected citizens of the world, either. Which is what you would expect, since these companies are competing to deliver shareholder value. These days that usually means finding a market and, as far as is legally possible (or perhaps a bit further until you get caught), monopolising it. First one in tends to win, as long as you have enough cash, and none of these three is exactly short of a few bob.

But will any of this actually happen? Who knows? Back to my cuppa.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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