Sep 22, 2014 · 2 minutes

Google has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to test its drone-powered Internet delivery system, according to a letter sent to the agency spotted by Mashable, with the hope of testing its utility in a controlled environment before filling the skies with it.

The drones are part of Google's efforts to deliver Internet connections around the world with balloons, satellites, and the solar-powered vehicles it acquired with Titan Aerospace in April. Facebook is working towards the same goal with its own don't-call-it-a-drone-program revealed when it acquired the Ascenta drone-maker and hired former NASA employees to lead the team. And perhaps the most highly-publicized of these private drone projects comes from Amazon.

I've written a lot about the privacy implications of allowing any of these companies to fill the skies with unmanned vehicles that can take excellent pictures of basically anything under them. Here's just one example of the kind of mischief companies could pull off with these drones up in the air:

Maybe the company could use aerial imagery to see that the paint on top of someone’s car has started to peel, a perfect opportunity for an auto shop to advertise its painting service. Perhaps it could monitor the users accessing its networks and determine who is spending time with whom without either of them ever mentioning it on Facebook. Then the company could use its vast databases to figure out that this person is spending more time with someone who isn’t his wife and use that information to advertise chocolates and lipstick remover. (It could also display an ad for a private investigator to the user’s wife — coincidentally, of course.)
But the request highlights another problem would-be drone operators have encountered in the United States: making sure they don't run afoul of national regulations or local laws. Google needs approval from both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Agency to fly its drones in the country, and the latter agency isn't quite sure how it should handle drones, as its need to distill the guidelines into a handy infographic makes clear. (Nothing says "convoluted" like using an infographic in 2014.) Then there are local laws and, in some cases, an antagonistic police force, which is what some hobbyists encountered when a police helicopter flew too close to their meandering drone.

I'm all for making it harder for companies to put flying death -- or at least pain -- machines into the skies. I also appreciate it when companies are prevented from introducing new technologies capable of violating our privacy in new and exciting ways. In this instance, it seems like the fact that neither the FCC nor the FAA have their ducks in a row on this might actually be a boon for society.

Now we'll just have to hope that NASA doesn't make things too easy on these wannabe pilots.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]