What’s all the fuss about drones?
Flying, unmanned robots that could protect endangered species, find lost children and scout out disaster areas – it’s not hard to see why drones fuel our imagination and, sometimes, our ire too. The hype seemed to reach a peak when Amazon announced its recent plans to deliver people’s goods by drone, within 30 minutes of having ordered them. For many commentators, it was a step too far – a cheap PR stunt to boost Christmas shopping on its website. “It’s all hot air and baloney,” wrote the Guardian. Business Insider was similarly scornful: “The real reason Amazon announced delivery drones last night: $3m in free advertising,” ran the headline.

So it’s all overblown?
Not so fast. Ten months since Amazon’s announcement, the commercial use of drones is beginning to look a little more likely. UPS, Google and the Chinese service SF Express have also taken Amazon’s lead and are looking into drone delivery. DHL, meanwhile, has just started a small trial of its “parcelocopters” to deliver medicine to hard to reach places in Germany – a small but perhaps significant step towards more general use.

And let’s not forget that there’s a lot more to drones than online shopping. Mary “Missy” Cummings at Duke University in North Carolina, for instance, points out that drones could play a big role in agriculture – to check the health of crops and guide the use of pesticides, for instance. It could also be used in real estate – by helping people to remotely scout out and survey properties. Then there’s the potential of personal drones for activities such as photography. “People underestimate the human desire to explore – and to see the world in a way they’ve never seen it before," Cummings says. Indeed, culinary queen Martha Stewart has been a surprise ambassador of the use of the technology for this purpose; she uses her own personal drone to photograph her extensive properties and farms.

OK. So Martha Stewart’s on board. What are the downsides?
Privacy is one immediate issue – the thought that a drone could be secretly recording information about you and your home as it flies by. But Cummings thinks that, in the US at least, existing “peeping Tom” laws should offer the necessary protection against unwanted photographs. And although delivery drones may need to film their pathway, they could be programmed to delete any captured data within 24 hours.

Of more immediate concern is the safety of these flying robots. What if they go out of control and crash land? Or what if they get sucked into the engine of a passenger aeroplane? Cummings thinks that it will be possible to design intelligent air traffic control that can avoid that kind of dangerous collision. In the case of malfunctioning, it would also need to pre-empt engine failure before a crash landing. “It’s relatively easy for it to detect if an engine is failing and to find an area to land in an unpopulated area.”

But you can’t discount the possibility for human error. Cummings points to the recent case of man who shot his neighbour’s drone when it was “trespassing” on his land. Not only does the case raise important questions about the nature of trespassing; the falling debris could have been a danger if it had landed in the wrong place. “It would have just been a falling rock,” says Cummings.

But surely that’s a freak incident?
In fact, the idea of shooting drones seems to be striking a chord with certain quarters of our society: “Johnny Dronehunter” clips advertising gun silencers became something of a meme in the US. Admittedly, few will take it seriously, but it does highlight perhaps the biggest hurdle for drones: you. “Ultimately, the biggest obstacles are the socio-technical issues,” says Cummings. Many people still associate the technology with the military, says Cummings – and so many are somewhat hostile to its possibilities. It’s a mistaken attitude, given the potential, she says. “Most people who hear about drones think about them killing people in Pakistan – they don’t realise they can have a positive impact.” 

Perhaps we will only come round to the idea once we see them in action – and for that the different companies need approval from the relevant governments, including, in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Along these lines, Amazon, Google and a few other companies have just announced a lobbying group to gain approval from the FAA for the commercial use of drones. Their clout could mean that things will move quickly, says Cummings. “That kind of money can be a game changer,” she says. Indeed, she thinks it’ll only be a matter of five or 10 years before we do begin to see those notorious delivery drones – and much else besides.

Where will it end?
If Cummings is right, this technology might just be the precursor for something even more radical. She thinks that drones will help bridge the gap to flying cars – by pushing the development of safe, autonomous navigation through air. “Convertible cars that turn into planes exist right now – you just need to get the right computers into them.” In fact, she thinks that autonomous flying cars could face fewer difficulties than those driving on the roads, since there are, potentially, fewer obstacles in the air. “From my perspective as a futurist, it’s a no brainer.”

To find out more of Cumming’s views on drone technology, check out her presentation at the World-Changing Ideas Summit in New York on 21 October. BBC Future will be covering the event in full – so watch this space.