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April 20, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

Mommy, the drone’s here!

The novelty of flying cars never materialized. But flying novels are right around the corner.

If you aren’t nervous enough reading about 3-D printers spitting out handguns or Google robots with Android phones, imagine the skies thick with crisscrossing tiny drones.

“I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not,” Jeff Bezos told Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, unveiling his octocopter drones.

The Amazon founder is optimistic that the fleet of miniature robot helicopters clutching plastic containers will be ready to follow GPS coordinates within a radius of 10 miles and zip around the country providing half-hour delivery of packages of up to 5 pounds — 86 percent of Amazon’s stock — just as soon as the FAA approves.

“Wow!” Rose said, absorbing the wackiness of it all.

The futuristic Pony Express to deliver pony-print coats and other Amazon goodies will be “fun,” Bezos said, and won’t start until they have “all the systems you need to say, ‘Look, this thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighborhood.’ ”

So if they can’t land on my head, why do they make my head hurt? Maybe because they are redolent of President Barack Obama’s unhealthy attachment to lethal drones, which are killing too many innocents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and our spy agencies’ unhealthy attachment to indiscriminate surveillance.

Or maybe they recall that eerie “Twilight Zone” episode where a Brobdingnagian Agnes Moorehead fends off tiny spaceships with a big wooden stirrer — even though these flying machines would be dropping off the housewares.

Or maybe it’s because after “60 Minutes,” “Homeland” featured a story line about a drone both faulty and morally agnostic. The White House chief of staff, wanting to cover up a bolloxed-up covert operation on the Iraq-Iran border, suggested directing the drone to finish off its own agent, Brody.

“I will not order a strike on our own men,” the acting CIA chief, played by Mandy Patinkin, replied sternly. “Hang it up.”

Or maybe I am leery that Bezos, who is also dabbling in space tourism, was looking for a Cyber Monday PR coup by playing to Americans’ ranker instincts, hooking our instant gratification society on ever more instant gratification. Do we really need that argyle sweater plopped in our hands in half an hour as opposed to the next day? What would Pope Francis say?

And won’t all the other alpha moguls want their own drone fleets? Howard Schultz will want to drop your half-caf, bone-dry, ristretto, venti, four-pump, sugar-free, cinnamon dolce, soy skinny Starbucks latte on the front step at 7 a.m., and Tim Cook will want to deliver the latest Apple toys the soonest, and Disney’s Robert Iger will want his drones gussied up like Mary Poppins.

It will be interesting to watch The Washington Post cover new owner Bezos as he takes on the FAA over drone regulations. The agency is drafting rules to let larger commercial drones and airlines share the sky, with an eye toward issuing licenses in 2015, but a handful of states are passing restrictions of their own.

Lobbying for private unmanned drones, Bezos will be aligned with the Motion Picture Association of America, which is working to get directors the right to use drones for aerial shots.

It’s a business taking flight. Experts say there may be as many as 30,000 private and government drones flying in this country by 2020, ratcheting drones into a $90 billion industry, generating 100,000 jobs. A degree in drone management can’t be far off.

Politico writes that the logistics of drone delivery will be dizzying: “It’s easy enough to drop a package on someone’s front steps, but what if the person lives in a fifth-floor apartment? Amazon wants to launch the service in large urban areas — could a drone collide with a skyscraper?”

Drones are less restricted abroad. Irish filmmaker Caroline Campbell used one to shoot film of Google and Facebook offices in Dublin, telling Wired, “We feel that it is no more intrusive than something like Google Street View.”

Journalists, police and paparazzi jumped on the drone trend. One photographer dispatched a drone over Tina Turner’s Lake Zurich estate to snap shots of her wedding last summer — before police ordered it grounded.

According to USA Today on Tuesday, all sorts of American businesses are eluding drone restrictions: real estate representatives are getting video of luxury properties; photographers are collecting footage of Hawaiian surfers; Western farmers are monitoring their land; Sonoma vintners are checking on how their grapes are faring. As Rem Rieder wryly noted in that paper, Bezos may eventually let his drones help with home delivery of The Washington Post, “but it’s bad news for kids on bikes.”

Law enforcement agencies are eager to get drones patrolling the beat. And The Wrap reported that in the upcoming Sony remake of “RoboCop,” Samuel L. Jackson’s character, a spokesman for a multinational conglomerate that has to manufacture a special RoboCop with a conscience for America (still traumatized by “The Terminator,” no doubt) scolds Americans for being “robophobic.”

Of course, for the robophobic, there is already a way to get goods almost immediately: Go to the store.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

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