Google’s drone delivery trial could be under threat from group of angry Australian residents

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Email Google's drone delivery trial could be under threat from group of angry Australian residents

Updated March 09, 2019 10:02:31

A drone, which looks like a small plane, flies through a blue sky. Photo: A drone flies overhead as part of a drone fast food delivery trial in Canberra. (ABC News: Jake Evans) Related Story: Noise from drone delivery service divides Canberra residents Related Story: Fancy having something delivered by a drone? Here's how it works Related Story: Drones to deliver vaccines to remote Vanuatu in world-first commercial contracts Map: Canberra 2600

When a corporation sets its mind to introducing a disruptive technology, it can seem like the unstoppable march of progress — whether society wants it or not.

Key points:

  • The drone delivery service says they have made their drones quieter
  • A resident group in Canberra claims most people do not want the service
  • A report shows environmental experts have concerns for wildlife due to the drones

In the small bush suburb of Bonython on the outskirts of Canberra, residents have said firmly they don't want it.

Google's parent company Alphabet has been testing its next revolutionary technology in their suburb, flying drones over Bonython homes to deliver coffee, burritos and medication.

The year-long trial, Project Wing, wrapped up last week; now the company has set its sights on launching the world's first commercial delivery drone operation in urban Canberra before June.

Residents, technologists concerned about impact of drones

A burrito is delivered to a Canberra home as part of the drone delivery trial. Video: A burrito is delivered to a Canberra home as part of the drone delivery trial. (ABC News)

Angry Bonython locals told a local Government inquiry the invasive drones had brought people to tears, and residents had openly confessed to police if something was not done, they would take it upon themselves to shoot the winged couriers down.

"It is not inevitable, if the Government can be convinced that the great majority of Canberrans don't want it," local Neville Sheather said.

He heads up Bonython Against Drones, a group that contends no amount of regulation would ease their privacy, safety and noise concerns.

"They can't make them invisible," Mr Sheather said.

Even proponents of drones, like technologist Professor Roger Clarke, have argued the project had taken flight too fast.

"We've got to get the different segments of the public represented in these discussions, and they haven't been," Professor Clarke said.

"I don't think at this stage anyone has actually got themselves a list of what's important."

Professor Clarke has consulted on the implementation of several biometric and advanced technologies, and was the secretary of the Australian Internet Society.

He said there was an established process for assessing new technologies, but in the case of Project Wing "we don't seem to be applying it".

"It's an inherently dangerous technology," he said.

"Things fall out of the sky, it's quite hard to get drones to work properly, it's quite hard to deal with drones when they lose communications … we should be treating it that way and applying the precautionary principle and getting out ahead of the problem."

Wildlife worries not addressed: report

A man stands smiling into the distance as a drone flies in the sky behind him. Photo: James Ryan Burgess is the CEO of Project Wing. (ABC News: Jake Evans)

But documents revealed under freedom of information laws show local government agencies had serious concerns about the lack of research surrounding drones — in particular, how Project Wing's drones could impact wildlife.

Environmental experts warned Project Wing was making assumptions it found hard to defend.

"There is insufficient information presented in this review, or likely to exist at present, to assume an insignificant impact of drones on ACT or Commonwealth listed threatened species, or even general wildlife," one report on Project Wing's drones warned.

"This is an emerging field. In fact, the data which is available would suggest some impact (possibly a significant impact on a number of listed species) is likely."

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr refuted claims the Government was moving too fast in allowing Project Wing's establishment.

Rather, he said if Canberra did not work with the company, it would fall behind.

"Our choice is are we involved, are we trialling, are we engaging, are we finding ways to make this technology work in a way that benefits people, or are we just going to sit back and let it happen?" he said.

"But I think there is as much prospect in stopping drones … as there is stopping the sun rising each day."

'They hit people and they kill people'

External Link: How does Wing's drone delivery service work?

But Professor Clarke said, unlike in the past, companies like Google would have to be more transparent with drones if they wanted them to succeed.

"With invisible technologies they get away with it, because we're stuck with the stuff that's embedded — in social media, for example — because it happens under the bonnet," he said.

"You can't do that with a drone, you can't do that with self-driving cars on the roads; they're awfully visible, they're tangible, and they hit people and they kill people."

He warned visible disruption would be "beaten down" by public opinion if corporations did not bring the public along.

"That is what is going to happen with some forms of these new robotics technologies unless corporations deal the public in, and get the downsides understood and prevented or mitigated, and they're not doing it," Professor Clarke said.

Project Wing said it had adapted its technology after complaints in Bonython.

Its new drone was almost half as loud and far-lower pitched, meaning it could much more easily blend in with urban background noise.

It recorded no safety incidents through its trial — though it had plenty of exemptions from usual drone regulations by Australia's aviation authority.

But Bonython residents were settled in, and had established a city-wide group to take the fight to skies across Canberra.

Professor Clarke said if they won the hearts and minds of Canberra, the small band of anti-drone locals could indeed take down their Goliath.

"When the public kicks up a stink it does get through to corporations, it does get through to regulators, it does get through to politicians," he said.

"So the idea we're powerless as members of the public is quite wrong."

Topics: pollution, science-and-technology, computers-and-technology, safety, canberra-2600, australia, act, bonython-2905, mitchell-2911

First posted March 09, 2019 08:22:40

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