I actually had to double-check my calendar to make sure today wasn't April Fool's. Because watching the intro video of an indoor surveillance drone operated by Amazon seemed like just the sort of geeky joke you'd expect on April 1.
But it isn't April Fools, and besides, Google has always been the one with the twisted sense of humor. Amazon has always been the one with the twisted sense of world domination.
This was a serious press briefing. None of the Amazon execs presenting even went so far as to crack a pun. Other than Bezos' maniacal laugh, you rarely ever see an Amazon exec even chuckle.
So the $249 autonomous Always Home Cam announcement wasn't a joke. It's an upcoming product expected in 2021. And, as much as it scares me and is likely to scare my wife (and it's probably going to scare the dog), I think I have to have one.
So let's take a moment to recap the absurdity of what we're talking about.
Let's welcome Skynet into our homes
We don't have a lot of details, but the video below will give you a quick view of its basic capabilities.
This is similar in some ways to the highly autonomous Skydio, but designed for indoor flying. The device is roughly the size of a 9-inch square baking pan (but a little thinner, perhaps). It lives in its charging dock (which also blocks the camera's view when docked). Once you launch the device from your Ring app (and, presumably, via Alexa), the little device goes airborne.
And it flies. Through your house.
Amazon says you can specify a flight path, map your house, locate points of interest, and generally instruct the eye of Skynet where to fly. Cyberdyne, uh, Amazon also says the device has built in obstacle avoidance.
Let's think about that for a minute. Will the device be able to avoid hanging lamps or plants? What about objects high up on shelves? Will it be able to stand back when a sleep-addled adult gets up in the middle of the night to do middle of the night business? Why would it be out and about at that time anyway?
And what about the downdraft? How close can it fly to bookshelves and knickknacks without air-blasting them to the ground?
How much will it freak out your pets? My spouse? Your spouse? Just how creepy would it be for it to hover over the kids beds because you're too lazy to get off the couch to see if they're asleep?
Every rational fiber of my being tells me this is wrong on every level. But as you all know, I don't have that many rational fibers left. I'm the guy with an Alexa in every room, now including the bathrooms.
What could you do with this thing?
If we weren't living in a pandemic, I'd definitely use this to freak out my friends. Invite them over and then, suddenly, have a drone follow them. I know two or three buddies who that, alone, would push over the edge. But we can't have friends over now, and besides, they read my column. So now they know and the surprise factor is gone. Bummer.
The Always Home Cam is primarily meant as a remote security cam. If you're out and you get an alert from a Ring doorbell or other security device (I wonder if this will work with other trigger devices), you can virtually fly around your house and see what's happening.
Back in the day, when I worked 12-16 hour days in an office, I would have loved to have this routinely check on my cat (I had a sweet longhair named Samantha back then). After about five or six hours at work, I always started to worry about whether she'd climbed up a drapery and gotten stuck there. This drone would have let me check.
I do see this as a laziness enabler. Let's say you're not sure if you locked the back door or turned off the stove. From the comfort of the couch, you could send the Always Home Cam (can we agree right now that this thing needs an anthropomorphized name?) to check for you.
I'm actually intrigued about using this to check on my 3D printers. I do have cams on many of the printers, but it would be great to be able to send it to each and see whether or not there are problems or jams.
Of course, I usually operate the printers behind closed doors to reduce the sound, so either I'd have to leave the doors open or teach Flying Alexa how to open the door.
I'd love to be able to use this as cam for filming YouTube videos, especially if it can run a specific path and station keep. It's not clear how much flight time a battery charge holds, but if it's anything like the drones I fly now, we're looking at about 10-20 minutes, which would be enough to film any one process for a video.
My guess is that the capabilities (and especially the extended use options) will be very limited on launch. But as we've seen with Alexa, it's quite likely that new features will be added over time.
David's final thoughts
I don't know. The more I think about this, the more I want one...bad. But the more I think about it, the more I think it has to be a bad idea. The potential hacking threat is disturbing. The idea that someone could decide to launch a drone inside my house and watch me remotely is unsettling.
Personally, I'm not too concerned because my home life is already almost fully documented online, the aspects of my life you don't see are boring, and no one wants to watch a middle-aged man walk around the house.
But the implications of abuse by law enforcement and possible stalkers is troubling. If someone has one of these Always Home Cams, can a court order compel Amazon to allow law enforcement to conduct an airborne search of a suspect's home? Can a hacker or a stalker gain access to the video feed (remember, all it takes is a user name, password, and possibly an authentication code) and watch a victim from the comfort of his or her evil lair?
Amazon does say the device emits an obvious and clearly identifiable sound while flying, so you can hear the machine coming. But what about those who are hard of hearing?
On the other hand, the possibilities for elder care are interesting. If an aging or infirm parent doesn't answer a call, it might be possible to launch a drone to make sure the elder hasn't fallen on the floor away from any way to call for help. On the other hand, how much would something like this freak out an elder, especially one that might be cognitively impaired?
Again, I have to say "I don't know." If this thing works, it'll be a game changer and we'll have to do a lot of thinking about implications and appropriate use.
One thing's for sure. Amazon doesn't just want to hear you at home. It wants to be a full-fledged housemate. Whether that's good or bad, only time will tell.
What about you? Is this something you desperately want or something you're desperate to avoid? Let us know in the comments below.
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