Photograph by Lima Pix
Photograph by Lima Pix

How Drones Will Change the Way You Eat

Mike Toscano of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (the drone advocacy group—I love DC) recently told Marketplace that drones—aircraft operated by computers, sans onboard pilots—have two specialties: delivery (“tacos, beer”) and situational awareness, or checking things out. The food world is ripe for both services.

First, on the delivery side, in case you thought the months-long rumors were just a publicity stunt, Amazon last week requested Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to fly drones for shipments. The drones’ cargo will surely include, but surely not be limited to, groceries and prepared meals. Industry observers believe that Amazon created AmazonFresh’s same-day food delivery service to stoke demand for same-day delivery of other, more traditionally Amazonian items consumers don’t need immediately, like swim goggles and televisions. The theory is that once consumers get used to drones whizzing through the air, dropping packages of just-ordered items on doorsteps, the public will become a whole lot more accepting of unmanned aerial vehicles. Public support for the commercial use of drones will skyrocket (that is, until the eggs or the television drop from just a foot too high).

The brilliance of AmazonFresh is that from its inception it offered not just groceries (which was plenty mind-blowing for those of us still astonished by the variety of companies competing to take over our weekly trips to the store) but products from local specialty stores and restaurant delivery, as well as books and electronics. It offers an addictively easy app with searchable recipes linked to one-click ordering with all items automatically added to your shopping cart. Currently available only in parts of Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco for an annual fee of $299, Bezos is expanding the service in 2014, according to his 2013 letter to Amazon shareowners.

Fittingly, Amazon is putting its reputation on the line by venturing to be one of the first purely commercial users of unmanned aircraft that the FAA will authorize in 2015 when it opens Americans skies to business drones. Although one can expect the company to access the best in drone technology controlled by onboard computers, drones have a dangerous pallor. Four hundred U.S. military drones have fallen from the sky in accidents since 2001, causing some to joke nervously whether some of those television sets will land on people. Drones could further exacerbate the transformation of the technology divide into a health-threatening food divide between haves and have-nots, although this is avoidable with the kind of foresight Amazon’s owner is famous for. Any commercial drone campaign must be partnered with an excellent PR campaign.

Listen to Mary Beth Albright discuss food drones on WTOP radio.

Second, on situational awareness, drones will improve the welfare of animals we eat and use for food production. Investigative journalist Will Potter has been long frustrated by state “ag gag” laws criminalizing the use of false pretenses to access a farm for purposes not authorized by the farm’s owner (such as photographing animal cruelty). In some cases, the photographer is subject to greater punishment than the perpetrator of animal cruelty. So Potter got creative with a Kickstarter campaign to buy drones and photography equipment to fly over and photograph factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), notorious for close quarters and animals living in inches of their own waste (see Mishka Henner’s 2013 photos).

Titled Drone on the Farm, the campaign to “combine drone photography with investigative reporting” raised about $75,000—more than twice its original goal—for materials and legal counsel. The rules are still murky about the relatively new area of unmanned flight and photography, so legal challenges are practically inevitable. And state ag-gag laws’ constitutionality is being tested in federal court as violations of the First Amendment and federal whistleblower statutes. Whether one agrees with Potter’s goal of exposing factory farms, the general privacy ramifications of allowing contested aerial photography, particularly when drones can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, are troubling.

Years from now when drones buzz overhead regularly, we may not think about or plan for their implications on the food system but simply watch what happens. That’s why now is the time to think of possibilities and ramifications. Because we all know once it starts moving, technology is tough to redirect. And impossible to stop.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.