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Coming soon? Attack of the delivery drones

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

You’ve heard of “The Princess and the Pea”? It’s the fable about a princess whose constitution is so delicate she can feel a single pea under the cushion of 20 mattresses and 20 eiderdown feather beds. Well, around my house, I am known as the princess of the db — for decibel — because I am profoundly, exquisitely, royally sensitive to noise. If I’m snoozing in my backyard and a neighbor starts up a lawnmower 10 houses away, my ears perk up like a corgi’s. The thwack of the newspaper arriving at 5 a.m. wakes me nearly every morning.

So imagine my dismay when I learned that Wing Aviation, a Google offshoot, just won certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin commercial drone deliveries. Starting later this year in suburban Blacksburg, Va., Wing will be able to drop commercial packages (up to about three pounds) directly to homes and businesses using the unmanned aircraft. The FAA’s ruling will surely clear the way for more companies, such as Amazon Prime Air, which are testing their own systems.


The proliferation of package-delivery devices in the skies raises all sorts of concerns about safety, privacy, and competition with neighborhood businesses. But think of the noise these autonomous missiles will create. Unlike the increasingly familiar recreational drones, commercial drones have many more rotors spinning at faster speeds, creating a constant, high-pitched buzz, like a mosquito on steroids — or a lawn mower on helium. According to acoustic ecologist Garth Paine of Arizona State University, commercial drones produce a decibel level between 70 (vacuum cleaner) and 96 (power mower). The range matters because decibel increases are logarithmic; every 10 decibels represents a doubling in volume. Paine’s research, published recently in The Conversation, refers to a NASA study that found the distinctive pitch of drones is more disturbing to people than other noise at the same volume. A trial of the Wing Aviation drone in suburban Canberra, Australia, generated so many noise complaints that the company went back to the drawing board.

Until now, FAA regulations have restricted drone operations to daylight hours, and — the biggest obstacle to widespread delivery services — require that they remain within sight of the operator at all times. But it’s possible to get a waiver for “beyond visible line of sight operations,” and a business symposium sponsored by the FAA next month will explain how to obtain one of what the agency calls “the most desirable and elusive of all operational approvals.”


Think about hundreds of drones invading your peaceful suburb, delivering everything from pizza to prescriptions to those coveted sneakers or smart watches or yoga socks or whatever is trending on Amazon, all within 30 minutes of placing an order. Stop the madness! Commercial drone delivery is just another example of companies creating a demand so it can be filled for a price. Who decided for us that we can’t live without 30-minute burritos?

Proponents of drone delivery say it reduces congestion and pollution on the roads, and they point to the first successful kidney transplant using a drone-delivered organ at the University of Maryland Medical Center last month. Of course, make an exception for emergency medicines and the like. But using drones to replace road vehicles seems fanciful; it would take hundreds of on-demand drones to equal what can be carried in a single transport van.


Excessive noise is more than just irritating to sensitive souls. Researchers have linked high blood pressure, heart attacks, and diabetes to long-term exposure. A third of the nation is already suffering from noise pollution above the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. So let’s forgo a bit of personal convenience for once, and save the skies for birdsong.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.