Google and Facebook conjuring up drone magic, but the public has concerns

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTech

Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) acquisition of drone maker Titan Aerospace, which followed Facebook's newly announced initiative with drone maker Ascenta, reflects tech magicians' visions for new ways of enabling Internet connectivity. But John Q. Public is less than enthusiastic about unmanned aerial vehicles, perhaps because drones can also serve as flying broomsticks for the wicked witches of surveillance.

Google confirmed it is buying New Mexico-based Titan, which has reportedly been courted by Facebook as well, for an undisclosed price. About two weeks prior to the Google-Titan deal, Facebook announced that its initiative is bringing on key members of the team from Ascenta.

Both Internet giants are positioning their expansions into the magical land of drones as part of their respective efforts to connect more of the world's population to the Internet. "It is still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring Internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation," a Google spokesman said in a statement, which was quoted by The Wall Street Journal.

But drones are also used for surveillance, and Facebook and Google have vested interests in knowing everything about everyone because that is basically how they make their money. The more they understand about a person's demographics and psychographics, the more revenue these companies can generate from targeted advertising.

When the American public thinks of drones, it is probably focused on how the devices can be used in surveillance and military operations, as those functions are the most familiar. So, it should not be surprising that Americans are less than enthusiastic about the use of drones in U.S. airspace. If you have problems with the existence of Google Street View, the potential for a more intrusive Google DroneView is even more disturbing.

According to a newly released national survey from the Pew Research Center, produced in partnership with Smithsonian Magazine, 63 percent of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if "personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace," while 22 percent think it would be a change for the better.

Pew's survey of 1,001 adults in the United States revealed that women and older adults are particularly circumspect regarding drones. While some 27 percent of men think the use of drones would bring a change for the better, only 18 percent of women do. And while 30 percent of 18-29 year olds are supportive of a drone-filled future, only 16 percent of those 65 and older are.

And here's the kicker for Google and Facebook to consider: Even among these groups with higher numbers of drone supporters, substantial majorities (60 percent of men and 61 percent of 18-29 year olds) think it would be a bad thing if commercial and personal drones become much more prevalent in future years, Pew said.

A quick tale of two Colorado communities shows just how conflicted Americans are about the incursion of drones into our lives.

In Deer Trail, Colo., a town in Arapahoe County about 55 miles east of Denver with a population of around 600, last year proposed a controversial measure that would allow its residents to hunt for federal drones and shoot them down. (The Federal Aviation Administration contends that would be illegal.)

But about 300 miles west, the  sheriff's department in Mesa County, Colo., population of about 145,000, already operates two drones that it uses for search and rescue operations, crime scene reconstruction and apprehension of suspects, accident investigation and fire assessment. Last fall, The Denver Post reported that the department was only one of two law enforcement agencies in the United States actively using drones.

I find it fascinating that two sides of one state can have such wildly divergent attitudes toward the same technology. Will such mixed emotions prevail in other regions as well? Or will the idea of drone-based communications and other services win over one and all? Google and Facebook have ensured their roles in answering those questions.--Tammy